CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLAGE ART: GORDON WAGNER
Interviewed by Richard C&ndida Smith
Completed under the auspices
Oral History Program
University of California
Copyright © 1989
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Piece of Pieces from The Sea , 19 58, photograph by
TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side One (February 7, 1987) 268
Wagner moves to Topanga Canyon from Arizona--Karl
Nolde--Wagner ' s waterless house--Von's Cafe
Galleria--Syndell Studios--Exodus Gallery and
Connor Everts--Ferus Gallery--Gil Henderson--
Wagner ' s shows in various Los Angeles galleries--
Recent gallery experiences.
TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side Two (February 7, 1987) 291
Wagner leaves Silvan Simone Gallery for Robert
Comara--Wagner returns to Simone--Purchase-award
competitions--Wagner discusses his dislike for
the Ferus group's "snob attitude"--Artistic
"discussions" --Hollywood clique--Af ro-American
and Chicano artists in Los Angeles--Wagner
punches out Walter Hopps--The beatniks--Ramblin '
Jack Eliot--Lord Buckley--Topanga and its
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, Side One (February 7, 1987) 316
Meeting and marrying Virginia Copeland Wagner- -
Wagner's "Mexican side" has "just disappeared "--
Icon to Great Railroads and the Indian way of
TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side One (February 14, 1987) 324
Wagner begins to make box assemblages in Mexico--
Oaxaca--The Spectator- -Day of the E)ead--Dumps in
New Mexico--The Phantom Ship- -Performance pieces:
Living in Infinity, Loof Lirpa, and The Maze of
Invisible Images--Don Preston--The sixties--Art
magazines and their reviewers--A Vietnam protest
piece- -America Needs Indians.
TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side Two (February 14, 1987) 346
The Hopis and the hippies--Harry Hay- -America
Needs Indians--Yogi Bhajan--Teaching at Pitzer
College--Selling his art in the late sixties and
seventies--Wagner ' s first exhibit in Sweden--Six
months in London.
TAPE NUMBER: X, Side One (February 21, 1987) 368
Looking for a gallery in London- -Bernard Lang- -The
old masters--Gathering junk at Henry Moore 's--
Wagner begins to construct narrative boxes- -
Aleatory art- -A London show- -Memories of the
TAPE NUMBER: X, Side Two (February 21, 1987) 388
The English versus Americans --Firaskew-- The
absurd--English versus California dunips--Theatre
of "the Upside Down--A rebirth in surrealism--
Scale in box constructions--Bruce Houston--
Concepts and titles in Wagner's work--Wagner goes
to Belgium- -Trompe l'oeil--The Phantoni--The
Bowler- -The Shadow of a Doubt- -Separate
Reflections- -Mirror imagery- -Medieval Christian
symbols- -Russian Hill Incident.
TAPE NUMBER: XI, Side One (February 28, 1987) 409
Wagner's shows in Belgium--Belgian surrealism--
Studying the roots of surrealism--Interest in
American art in Belgium and Sweden--Interest in
TAPE NUMBER: XI, Side Two (February 28, 1987) ..429
More on eroticism in art--Surrealism and
cruelty--There are no more bourgeois--Spontaneity
and automatic painting-- "Editing chaos" --Freudian
and Jungian theories--Surrealism and amusement
zones--People ' s surrealism--Dream narratives.
TAPE NUMBER: XII, Side One (March 7, 1987) 451
More on Wagner's first trip to Belgium--Wagner
moves to San Francisco--Vorpal Gallery--Living in
Sebastopol--Joseph Cornell--The importance of the
grid in twentieth-century art--The Staircase--
Introduction to Catholicism--Father Arthur Swain.
TAPE NUMBER: XII, Side Two (March 7, 1987) 472
The Wagners return to Belgium--Reception in a
castle--Saint Teresa of Avila and The Interior
Cast:le--Puns and the playing card series- -
Becoming Catholics--Reading about Saint Teresa--
Exhibition at California State University,
Fresno--Moving back to Los Angeles--Wagner ' s
difficulties visualizing what The Interior Castle
should look like--A vision from Saint Joseph--The
emerging piece is blessed.
TAPE NUMBER: XIII, Side One (March 21, 1987) 495
More on the vision from Saint Joseph--The seven
levels of The Interior Castle--Saint Teresa's
guidance during the castle's construction--Help
from strangers along the way- -Making the
figures- -Exhibiting The Interior Castle.
TAPE NUMBER: XIII, Side Two (March 21, 1987) 517
Ascent and rebirth imagery--Contemplative prayer--
Surrealism and religion--Projects after The
Interior Castle--The Room--Ships--Angel ' s Gate
Cultural Center--Community galleries versus art
associations--Upcoming shows- -"Toying Around" at
Barnsdall Junior Art Center.
TAPE NUMBER: XIV, Side One (March 23, 1987) 541
Firaskew- -Memories of the old Redondo Pier--
Brighton Pier--Trompe I'oeil in Firaskew--
Miniaturization in Wagner's work--Collective and
archetypal dreams--Involvement with Dreamworks--
Los Angeles as an artists' community.
Index of Gordon Wagner Works 572
TAPE hnJMBER: VII, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 7, 1987
SMITH: I thought today, Gordon, we would resume the
chronology of your life. When we left off with that, we
were in Topanga; you had moved to Topanga, back from
Arizona in the mid-1950s. So my first question is what led
you to return to Southern California from Arizona?
WAGNER: Well, I had a problem there of survival. Arizona
is a wonderful place, especially an Indian reservation, but
when you run out of money, there's not much you can do but
come back to where you were. I didn't want to go back to
Hermosa Beach, I wanted to get away from that area for a
while. I owned the house there, rented that to people.
And I said, well, what would be a good compromise between
the sea and Arizona, where I could get the terrain of
nature and mountains, and yet be close to the sea so I
could go swimming and bodysurfing if I wanted to? And
something flashed on me: Topanga Canyon. At that time,
there were a group of artists living there, and rent was so
cheap it was incredible. The first house we lived in was
about five bedrooms and a huge living room and studio, and
it was, I think, $57.50 a month rent. I stayed there until
the landlord dynamited a big rock in front of the place,
and kind of changed the geographic position of the house,
his house and all the rest of the houses in the
neighborhood. Yeah, that was on Fernwood Pacific
[Drive]. A guy named Vance Sanders. He meant well. He
did scare the people a bit. So in sheer desperation — I
didn't know what to do, and this wonderful woman who lived
about three blocks away said, "I have a house for rent up
on the top of the hill with a view that you just won't
believe." And she said, "It's such a beautiful house, and
an acre with gardens all landscaped, I'd have to charge you
$90 a month rent for it." So I moved up there after a year
of the other place.
SMITH: Is that the house that didn't have any water?
WAGNER: No, that's another one. That was after the one on
Summit [Drive]. There I met a lot of wonderful people. I
got very stimulated by Topanga and by the artists who lived
there. That's where I met Karl Nolde, the German
expressionist. He lived across the road from me.
SMITH: Nole or Nolde?
SMITH: Is he any relation to Emil Nolde?
WAGNER: Yeah, he was the brother of Emil Nolde. But he
called himself Kanol in America, Karl Kanol, of Karl Nol of
Nolde. He kept you laughing from night to day, wonderful
German. I could go on with stories about him for years.
Incredible what he got into, just living in Topanga.
SMITH: Well, maybe you could just give us one of the
stories about Karl Nolde?
WAGNER: Well, I wouldn't know where to start with that,
because he was always having-- He was a painter who painted
German expressionist painting. He still is a German
expressionist, and he is still painting, but now he lives
in Mexico in Guanajuato. He's lived there since about
1957. He liked to buy old automobiles. He had sort of an
obsession for old vehicles in the thirties: '37, '36
models, '35, '32.
One story I can tell you, he also painted houses to
make a living. But his house was stacked with paintings,
and he hung paintings on top of paintings in the house. He
lived next door to a woman who kept monkeys, who had a
monkey farm up the canyon, a Mrs. Buckman. He lived next
door to her. The monkey- farm lady had about three hundred
monkeys. She would dress up the most wonderful monkeys in
clothes, all sorts of suits and neckties and shirts, and
bring them down to the market in Topanga in a group.
They'd go into the store and drive the storekeeper crazy,
and the butcher, they'd be up on the butcher's counter.
The whole monkey farm burned down one day. Two monkeys got
in a fight over a cigarette and a match and set fire to the
hay. Burned the whole place down before they could do
anything. She lost about, oh, 50 percent of her animals
The fire department tried to hook up the water, but the
bigger monkeys were unhooking it all the time. They were
up on the fire truck putting the hats on. Like the
SMITH: Did the monkeys escape?
WAGNER: Yeah, well, they were all out of their cages
running around wild. The fire department was so
frustrated-- Actually, when they went back after the fire
was over, down to the station in Topanga-- Bob Etts, he was
my friend, he told me the story. When they got back they
were all talking about the crazy fire and all these crazy
animals. They went out, and there were two monkeys that
were unrolling the hose out of the fire truck at the fire
Well, Karl became a neighbor of Mrs. Buckman, who
slept with an ape and had a donkey that was always right in
the middle of the road. In order to make an entrance into
my house and Karl's-- And Hazelett lived up there, he had
the Hound of the Baskerville. It was a big dog he'd named
something or other. He had these huge hounds. The three
entries where it was very steep, at night we'd come home at
one, two in the morning, the donkey would be lying across
the road. We'd have to get out and sit on a steep angle
and pull this animal off the road to get by him, he
wouldn't move. We told Mrs. Buckman about it a hundred
times; it didn't do any good.
Karl was always painting, but he left his window
open. One night there was a knock at the door, and there
was a monkey, or two monkeys, dressed up in Lederhosen. He
opened the door and they both jumped up on him and hugged
him while the other monkeys came through the back window.
They were throwing his brushes all over the studio, you
know. Karl was going mad with these monkeys. So that was
a typical Topanga story.
As for his cars, that's a whole different thing--that
goes on and on and on. The things caught on fire, and he
was arrested. He drove one car to Santa Monica down on the
Pacific Coast Highway near the overpass, the Wilshire
overpass. It ran out of gas. So he went to get gasoline,
and he came back and the car was gone; somebody had stolen
it. So he went to the Santa Monica City Hall, told the
police, reported it. He hitchhiked back to Topanga, and
then he got his other car. He drove that down, and that
broke down in the middle of the highway. He went for help
at a gas station, came back and that one was stolen. He
went to the city hall again, and they refused to accept his
complaints. They said he was crazy and threw him in
jail. [laughter] So he finally got out after he convinced
them that he was not crazy, and he really did have two
cars, and they were both stolen on the same day within four
hours of each other. He went home and got his old truck.
He had to paint some house in the [San Fernando] Valley,
and he's going down the hill, and he got down there and
this woman stopped dead in front of him and slammed on the
brakes, and he rear-ended her. Well, when he did that, all
of the paint in the truck tipped over, and the lids came
off and it started running all over the f loor--green, white
paints, mixed. The policeman screamed at Karl to get out
of the truck. And he said, [with German accent] "I can't
get out of the truck, I'm stuck."
And he said, "What do you mean you're stuck?"
"Well, I'll tell you."
"I'll pull you out." So he opened the door to pull
Karl out, and when he did that all the paint ran out all
over the policeman's pants and boots, completely down over
his feet and legs. So Karl was again taken in that day, in
He had these things happen to him. One car caught on
fire on the Pacific Coast Highway, in the back seat, and he
had nothing to do, so he kept running over across the
traffic getting sand in his hands to pour on it, to put out
the fire. [laughter] Back and forth.
Karl's eighty- two now. When he was seventy-nine, they
had the Cervantes Festival in Mexico, in Guanajuato. Karl
walked up to the conductor, the conductor of the Leipzig
Symphony Orchestra. They played Mahler, and when they got
all through, he said, "You know, Mahler was my hero, and
Bruno Walter was my hero."
And the man said, "Who are you?"
"Well, I lived in Leipzig, my name is Karl Nolde."
"Karl Nolde. Where have you been?"
He says, "Why do you ask?"
He said, "We've been looking for you for years, you've
He said, "How do you mean that?"
He said, "Half of our museum is full of your work.
I'll send you a catalog." So they sent him a catalog this
thick, and just about half of the book was his paintings,
his works. So they invited him to have a retrospective on
his eightieth birthday of all that work and his new
works. So he went to Leipzig to celebrate that. I had him
for a neighbor and all other kinds of eccentrically
wonderful people for neighbors. Topanga was a place where
you didn't expect anybody to come in it, and the people who
lived there, you didn't expect would ever leave.
SMITH: Was Topanga more isolated then? Was it harder to
get in and out from the highway?
WAGNER: No. It was for a while, because they cut the
highway off, took one mile out of the curves, and you
couldn't go to the coast at all. It was all shut up from
the coast up to Topanga, to remove these curves. So if we
came home before two in the morning-- They'd let natives
through on this dirt road, but no one else. If you came
home after two In the morning. It was locked up and you had
to walk home. I remember those ley cold nights going up
that canyon, and the full moon. It was a beautiful thing
to see, and it was like walking on the moon. You'd have to
walk all the way home.
SMITH: At this time, you were working at Rocketdyne in
WAGNER: Rocketdyne? No, not at that time, I wasn't. I
was just painting. I wasn't working right at that moment,
no. It was a little later I took a job in Santa Monica, at
the Steven Douglas Company. I worked on the plotting table
for a jet simulator, a jet-fighting FJ-1 simulator, for
pilots in plotting the curves. I worked on the first
plotting table like that to get all these curves related to
the flight situation and developed all this as a machine to
do it. It was purchased by Benson Lehner later. The
original concept, the actual electronics, were worked out
by a man from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] ,
and I was doing the electromechanical design for it, to
make it work. He had the theories of how it might do it,
so there were two of us working on this device.
Then I took time off for Mexico and went there for a
while. I came back and moved up on a mountain where I
purchased a house for $10,000 with a living room that was
fifty feet by forty and a twenty-seven- foot ceiling. That
was Charlie Chaplin's house at one time. And Payne--what
was his name- -Robert Payne? The poet. He lived there
before me. It was three acres and no water. That was the
place that was waterless.
SMITH: You had a well or something?
WAGNER: No, nothing. Water tank. Had to supply the water
through the water tank. It was supposed to come up from
the bottom of the canyon. The Topanga Oaks Mutual Water
Company supplied the water, but by the time it went through
about thirty houses down below, it never reached my tank.
I had to go and get water and haul it back up there. I
built a water tank on a trailer, and I'd go down to Santa
Monica on a Friday night to Zucky's and have my coffee;
usually take Karl along, or somebody, John Raymond or
[Arnold] Schiffrin or somebody. We'd go spend about two
hours in there while my water tank was filling up in the
service station across the street. You know, I'd stick it
in, and I knew about the time it was filled. It was five
hundred gallons; truck it up there, and it was good for
about a week.
SMITH: I'd like to ask you a little bit about some of the
places in Los Angeles and Southern California where you
were exhibiting at the time. Did you have shows at Von's
[Caf6 Galleria] coffeehouse?
WAGNER: Yes, I did. Ed [Edward] Kienholz got that show
for me, following him. I met him in Topanga when he came
to visit me.
SMITH: He lived there at the time?
WAGNER: He was having a show at Von's. No, he lived down
in L.A.; he lived on Melrose Avenue, I think it was.
SMITH: At the time, yeah.
WAGNER: Near Melrose in an old house, a roofless house. I
was introduced to him through Arnold Wagman, who was a New
York character, a true man from the Lower East Side, you
know, and a funny guy, a wonderful wit. Anyway, Von gave
me the exhibition right after Ed Kienholz, and I think the
next show after that was Hans Burkhardt.
SMITH: In terms of the shows that Von had, what was he, as
far as you know, what was he concerned about doing with
these shows? Was it very open, was he trying to show a lot
of different types of work, or did he have pretty specific
WAGNER: I don't think Von much worried about anything like
that. He was a very happy man that ran an espresso bar and
coffeehouse, and good quality food. What his basic
interest was was to have fairly good quality art hanging on
his walls as decoration, you know. I think that's what he
was basically into, but it was a good place, because a lot
of people came there at that time. It was the time of the
coffeehouses, when things were getting going. He was
probably one of the first.
SMITH: What about Syndell [Studios] gallery, Walter
Hopps's first gallery, did you exhibit there?
WAGNER: No, no, I never exhibited at Syndell. That was
before — Ed Kienholz did have an exhibition at Syndell.
There were people there like Bob [Robert] Irwin, and Craig
Kauffman, and, oh, the San Francisco artist who was the big
artist, you know.
SMITH: Hassel Smith?
WAGNER: Hassel Smith, he was there, yeah. Wally [Wallace]
Hedrick, and just a few. Wally [Wallace] Herman.
Walter put on the Merry-Go-Round Show, which was in
the Santa Monica merry-go-round building, where he had a
lot of these kind of pieces, you know, from his gallery.
It was a really exciting show. I remember there was one
painting that had — a big black painting with a hole in it,
just punched through. There was a weightlifter from Muscle
Beach, and he was standing there, and he was so angry, he
used to come in every day and bend a one- inch bar of steel
double like this to vent his fury about the piece.
Syndell was on Gorham Avenue, right off of San Vicente
SMITH: Harrington [Avenue], right?
WAGNER: Barrington, where the Intersection is. It was a
redwood building that was made out of logs. It actually
was a real estate office at one time. A very nice
juxtaposition, because here was the Syndell gallery, with
Walter, and then there was Robert Mallory--on the end was
Nellie Trout, who was a little old lady who had life-
drawing classes for menopause-type women, real
pretty paintings, and the Syndell on the other end of the
building. It was an interesting juxtaposition,
[laughter] Entirely opposite.
SMITH: What about Exodus Gallery? Did you ever exhibit
WAGNER: Not really, no. No. I went to performances
there. You're talking about Connor Everts ' s gallery in San
WAGNER: I showed a couple of things there, but never had a
big show; you know, things. It was a wonderful place.
SMITH: In terms of the artistic community that exists in
San Pedro now with Angel's Gate [Cultural Center] and the
artists who are living there now, was the Exodus Gallery an
important thing in terms of attracting artists to the
area? How important was it in terms of what has developed
in San Pedro?
WAGNER: I would say that 99 percent of the people in San
Pedro never heard of the Exodus Gallery.
SMITH: Even the artists?
WAGNER: Well, there weren't any artists in San Pedro.
They didn't exist. The reason I think that Connor Everts
opened the Exodus Gallery was that it was a funky
neighborhood. It was right off of Beacon Street, which was
the center of San Pedro, with all its bars and the red-
light district. It was funky; it was where it was supposed
to be. It was like a beat coffeehouse, but it was
elegantly put together by Connor, who's always been a
master at building and designing. He had performances and
happenings and all these sorts of things, and everybody
came there , but I don ' t think anybody from San Pedro ever
would even bother to look in the place. I think the reason
that Connor got there was because Connor was a
longshoreman, and he worked unloading banana boats in the
old days when they did it by hand without the containers.
I think it was a convenient place for him to have a
coffeehouse, being in San Pedro where he worked. He was
married to the Nisei Queen [Chizuko Everts] at that time.
She was the most-- You know, in Little Tokyo they have
every year the Nisei Week? She won that. She was a
beautiful Japanese girl. At that time, Connor was doing
all sorts of fantastic pieces of art. He was a good
draftsman, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He still
has a wonderful sense of humor. The last time I saw him,
he said, "Gordon, if you don't have a show by the time
you're fifteen years old, you just ain't going to make
it." A retrospective, he said.
SMITH: Now, the Ferus Gallery, did you ever exhibit your
work in the Ferus?
WAGNER: Yeah, a little bit. Ed Kienholz opened his own
gallery, the Now Gallery, out on La Cienega [Boulevard] . He
gave me my, actually, first show in Los Angeles in that
area in his gallery. Right after that a sort of
partnership came about because Walter moved from the
Syndell to a gallery that was a warehouse in the back of an
antique store [run by people] by the name of Streeter and
Camille Blair. They gave them that whole space for the
Ferus Gallery. So Ed took all his artists with him, and
they kind of combined the two together for a while until
Walter decided which ones he wanted and which ones he
didn't want. Two different personalities and reasons, and
so there were some eliminated and some stayed until they
got what they wanted.
SMITH: Ed Kienholz, in his oral history, mentions that for
a while the gallery was run--it was his and Walter's
gallery, but it was run, in a way, collectively; the
artists would discuss things until they arrived at a
consensus. Is that how you saw it?
WAGNER: Yeah. Bob [Robert] Alexander had a big part in
SMITH: Did you participate in those discussions?
WAGNER: Oh, a few, yeah.
SMITH: Like what kinds of things-- Like whose work would
WAGNER: Yeah, that sort of thing, nothing major. When
they closed down Wally Herman's show, for the cross with
the sexual photograph of Shirley and Wally, the police shut
that down. Bob Alexander was very big in the gallery then,
you know, he was working. You know Baza [Bob Alexander],
don't you? He's in Venice, he has the temple. I'm a
member of that, [laughter] I'm an ordained minister, as a
matter of fact, of that temple. Still have my license from
the State of California. He invited me, and there were a
lot of people like Berman and [George] Herms in his
temple. He's still running it.
But he was important in that time, and he says, "Okay,
guys, it's all over. We're being shut down." He came
running into the-- "The fuzz are here to close down the
gallery for Wally 's show." And Kienholz, he was most of
the time sitting in the lotus position working on his wood
pieces, like the one behind you on the floor. At that
time, Gil Henderson was pouring the paint all over the
canvases. The guys worked in this gallery; they used it as
a studio. Gil was pouring all this paint all over the
canvas, and then he'd take a stick or knife and scrape half
the painting away, leaving it kind of tracked. Then he'd
throw it up onto the roof of the Ferus Gallery and let it
dry. Artie Richer was walking around making things out of
torn roofing paper. And John Reed, he was building things
out of paper and collage. John Reed always walked around,
he wore a Greek sailor's hat, and he always said, "You
know, an artist's work is never done." A lot of those
people moved, like Dane Dixon. They all took off or died.
SMITH: Kienholz, in his oral history, mentions that, well,
he mentions Henderson, in particular, moving to New York
and then disappearing. He feels that if Henderson had
stayed in Los Angeles he would have developed as a stronger
SMITH: Kienholz said that in his oral history about
Henderson, Gil Henderson.
WAGNER: Oh, Gil Henderson? Gil Henderson moved to New
York, and he had a big show when he came back. He had a
show in the-- What was it? I saw Gil Henderson at
Kienholz ' s exhibit at the Dwan Gallery, and he was all
dressed up in a suit and a necktie and a top coat. He
looked like a millionaire. [laughter] I first knew Gil
Henderson on the beach in Hermosa when he was married to
Olympia. They lived right about a block away from me. He
spent quite a bit of time in Hermosa Beach. I think the
last show he had was in Molly Barnes's gallery with Picture
Frames. He worked in the framing company, and he had
moldings this big, and cornices. They were coming out of
the walls, and he put frames inside of frames. The whole
thing was creeping all over the gallery, the picture frames
as sculpture. It was a beautiful show, I loved it. Then
in the middle of it, he'd put up a glass cover like that,
and he'd write a note and ball it all up and throw it in
there, and it would say something like--I forget the
quote--why are kids so nasty, or something like that.
He worked for Art Services as a picture framer, you
know, cutting molding. He stacked all his work up and said
he was never going to show it again as long as he lived.
And last I heard, he hasn't shown anywhere. I remember
when he won the first award in the [Los Angeles] County
Museum show back in I think about '51, '52, the Atavistic
Image. He had a lot of talent, and [Lorser] Feitelson was
really behind Gil Henderson. I like Gil Henderson. He was
a calm guy, rather negative, but he was okay.
SMITH: What do you mean negative?
WAGNER: Bitter, I mean bitter.
SMITH: At this time, I'm talking about the mid-fifties,
late fifties, was Irwin already discussing perceptual
theory, or was he as intellectual as he--
WAGNER: No, he was doing just kind of-- In the fifties he
was making bone paintings, drawing bones and things like
SMITH: In terms of when he would be talking to other
artists, was he very intellectual compared to —
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Super intellectual, yeah.
He could talk pretty well when he wanted to. If he didn't
want to sit down for an hour and meditate in a lecture.
He'd do that sometimes, the class would wait for him to say
something, he'd sit through the whole class in meditation
and then he'd leave and not say a word.
SMITH: This is in the fifties already?
WAGNER: No, that was later. And he always refused to have
any photographs of his work done or reproduced anyplace. I
don't know if he's still doing that, but that was his —
"I'll never have anything reproduced."
SMITH: Well, a lot of his stuff doesn't work if you see it
in a photograph.
WAGNER: Wouldn't reproduce anyway. It's pretty hard to
reproduce a white painting, isn't it?
SMITH: Were there other galleries that you were showing at
at this time?
WAGNER: Well, I had an exhibition in the Lucy Bayne
Gallery, which was on Beverly [Boulevard] , about Robertson
[Boulevard] . I had an exhibition there of my Navaho
paintings. Lucy and Walter Bayne, they were Swedish.
SMITH: Was she interested in showing avant-garde work, or
was she more commercially oriented?
WAGNER: I don't know. My paintings were totally abstract,
I'd say that my Yeibichai [also known as The Navaho Night
Chant] painting and the big one, those sort of-- In those
days they weren't exactly what you would call
conservative. She showed Leonard Kaplan and a lot of
people like that. She was a nice lady, really. All she
wanted was three paintings for an exhibition. Yeah, I had
to give her three paintings to have an exhibition in the
place. She didn't tell me that until the end.
SMITH: Oh, you had to give her the paintings?
WAGNER: Yeah. She didn't tell me that in the beginning,
but I couldn't take three home. Then I was with another
gallery there, it was called Foch Rayboff, Ernie Rayboff
and Nina Foch.
SMITH: The actress?
WAGNER: Yeah. He just represented me. That was about
three blocks from where the Lucy Bayne was at that time, on
Beverly. I had exhibitions in different places, in Hermosa
Beach and Manhattan Beach, Pacific Palisades. Different
galleries. And with Silvan Simone. Before he was on
Olympic [Boulevard] and Federal [Avenue] he was on Westwood
Boulevard just south of Wilshire [Boulevard] . He was there
for about eight years, I guess, seven or eight years. He
had some interesting artists at that time. He sold a lot
of art for me, that's why I went with Simone. Two
galleries really sold art for me: one was Silvan Simone and
one in Manhattan Beach called the Hickson Gallery, Russ
[Russell] Hickson. Those two, and Simone 's gallery in the
Palisades, which was called the Florentine, which was his
gallery run by a German by the name of Edward Kneifel.
SMITH: Now, when you worked with Simone, let's say Simone
and Hickson, was there any- -did they try to influence your
work at all? Did they say, "This is nice, but maybe you
should do more of this?"
WAGNER: No, never. Never once.
SMITH: You brought in what you did and —
WAGNER: Well, after my Indian period and I'd sold all
those paintings, I couldn't keep painting those, so I
started moving into my assemblage. He was so good, he'd
take a chance on things. He was a pioneer type. He told
the collectors, he said, "Well, this is a show I'll lose
money on, but I'm going to give it to Gordon anyway,
because I have to show a loss once in a while." That's the
kind of guy-- But if I had a show, he'd talk the people
into it, and they'd buy the works regardless.
SMITH: Now, take Hickson in Manhattan Beach, what kind of
work did he generally show? Were you typical of the kind
of work he was showing or were you kind of on the extreme
side of things?
WAGNER: Well, he showed a lot of different kinds of
artists: James Jarvaise, Francis De Erdely, Rico Lebrun
and Henry Miller. A lot of people you don't know. He
showed my old instructor, Norman [S.] Chamberlain, and
people like that. Keith Crown, and people like Dave Miller
and Frank Jensen and Ben Shaw. He had a nice group. No,
my work wasn't far out at all. He was a very open
person. He didn't sell junk. He didn't sell pretty
paintings and pictures. No, that's why I liked him.
SMITH: Did you participate in the the Monday night walks
on La Cienega?
WAGNER: Yeah, I used to go and see them walk around, check
them out. I had a gallery there. At that time was
probably, when, in the sixties?
SMITH: Fifties, sixties, yeah.
WAGNER: Well, the late fifties, early sixties. My gallery
then was Bob [Robert] Comara [Gallery] right there, Melrose
Place, back of [Felix] Landau [Gallery]. Oh, yeah. I had
three or four shows in his place.
SMITH: Now, did gallery owners seek you out, or did you
have to go knock on doors? How did that work? How did it
happen that-- How did representation happen?
WAGNER: How was I asked, you mean?
WAGNER: They asked me. I never knocked on any gallery
door in my life, except in Europe. But never in America.
I still won't. I don't really believe in it.
SMITH: Now, Simone--
WAGNER: I've tried two recently, just to see what would
happen, and I'm certainly glad I tried it because I
realized I would never want to do it again, you know.
SMITH: Who are these?
WAGNER: Well, Jan Baum was one of them.
SMITH: Here in Los Angeles?
WAGNER: Yeah. She handled Bruce Houston and a lot of
people, Betye Saar and Alison Saar. I figured, well, she
might be interested. She wasn't the slightest bit
interested in my work and didn ' t even know anything about
my work, you know.
SMITH: Did she look at any of the slides?
WAGNER: Oh, she looked at them, but she said, "Well,
there's really no-- I have no space for you, and time--"
She really turned me off.
SMITH: What was the other one?
WAGNER: Who was it, now? Oh, Asher Faure. I was asked to
go there by Janice Felgar, the photographer. Somebody that
worked at Asher Fauer loved my work. I was in an
exhibition at the Design Center, so they said, "Please come
and show this to Betty Asher."
So I walked in. I was looking at Michael [C]
McMillen's show that time. Betty Asher came out and she
was just-- She wasn't interested in talking to me. "She
says, "Hello, Gordon, how are you?" That's all. She knew
my name and who I was. Virginia [Copeland Wagner] said,
"Would you like to see some of Gordon's work and slides?"
She said, "I'm not the slightest bit interested, I know
what he does." [laughter] Then Michael McMillen walks in,
"Hi, Gordon, how are you?" and she disappeared into her
SMITH: Yeah. At the time when you —
WAGNER: That was enough. I don't need that. Before, I'd
never asked a gallery for an exhibition in all my life, and
I'm not about to do it again. That's it. No more.
SMITH: Was there any question of being exclusively
represented by one--like Simone didn't mind that you were
also represented by Comara and Hickson?
TAPE NUMBER: VII, SIDE TWO
FEBRUARY 7, 1987
WAGNER: Actually, when I was with [Silvan] Simone, I was
with him from 1953 until about 1968. Then I went to
Comara, and I wasn't represented by Simone anymore. I went
to Comara, and I was with him from about '68, I guess, to
about '74. I found Comara to be a very negative guy. I
liked him, but he was negative, and he was always down.
Somebody would want to buy something from me in there, and
he'd say, "Well, there's something over here I think you'd
like better." He talked the Sara Lee pies man out of
buying a piece, you know, the big collector in Chicago.
His daughter is a friend of mine from Eugene [Oregon] . He
wanted it, and he saw the photograph in the brochure and
wanted to know the price, and [Comara] didn't even bother
to — And then he told Simone how business was, how terrible
it was. He really disliked Simone because Simone was so
positive. He threw Simone out of his gallery because he
was saying how his art was selling and how he was doing
such a great job. Couldn't stand it; Comara couldn't take
that. Comsra had some good artists, don't get me wrong.
He had a good eye. But when it came to selling and getting
into it, there was something lacking in his personality
that blocked. His wife was tremendous when she was alive,
but she died. She ran the thing; she was the
salesperson. But I like Bob. I don't know whatever
happened to him; he Just dropped out.
So anyway, I wanted to have a show of these boxes of
mine in 1975, so I went to Simone and told him that I'd
made a mistake and thought I'd like to come back to him.
"No way! I'm not going to let you come back to my gallery
ever, " he told me.
I said, "I've got all these new boxes. I'm sorry, I
made a mistake with Comara. How many times I have to tell
you I'm sorry? I made a mistake."
"I'm not going to take you back. I'll come and see
what you're doing, but I'm not going to take you back."
So he came down to Echo Park, and he looked over all
the works. I'd been married to Virginia, you know, and
he'd never met Virginia, really. So he got to talk to her,
and he weakened. I had a nice hound dog type, and he loves
hound dogs, hunting hounds, you know. And he weakened,
"Let me see what you've got." We go downstairs. He says,
"It's fantastic, but as long as you are with me, if you
ever change again, you are never going to come back".
I said, "Silvan, I was with you for ten years, or nine
years, and I was always there, right? But you got me mad
at you because you wanted to go fishing and hunting, and
you fell in love with Jose Luis Cuevas, and you fell in
love with [Rico] Lebrun, and you fell in love with
[Roberto] Matta [Echaurren] , and you fell in love with
[Raphael] Canogar, and you had no love for me. What did
you want me to do when I felt rejected like a poor girl
with no love?"
"Well," he said, "I have to make money, and these
people are selling."
I said, "Well, that's not my fault because you're not
selling my work. The people have to be educated, don't
"Well, let me see what I can do. When do you want to
have this exhibition?"
I said, "Whenever you say so".
"Next spring," March, I think it was. "We have to
make a catalog. I need the photographs and the whole
thing. You come out, we'll put it together and design it
and get it ready."
So I had the show. I had twenty-one boxes in the
show. His son had just come with him, and he was a
musician who was a composer, Stephen Simone, and he didn't
have the slightest idea about art. But he was going to be
his partner because Thorn Andreolas had left. Thorn
Andreolas went to Taos [New Mexico] and opened up his
gallery. First, I got him this exhibition space to be the
director of the Stables Gallery in Taos. He'd crossed
Simone--he lied to him--and Simone fired him for a letter
that he said he'd mailed and Thorn was still carrying it
around and he was afraid to mail it. He carried it around
for a month telling Simone he'd mailed it. Simone found
out about it and hit the fan and got rid of him. Well,
Thom's a big man now; he's about [gestures] so tall,
[laughter] He's got the new gallery in Taos. They fired
him from the Stables. I got him the job. I went out of my
way to help this man get organized; he was so sad and
down. Now he won't even write to me, talk to me, speak to
me. You know, I helped him, so therefore he doesn't want
me. After all that.
So anyway, to get back to Silvan' s son, who is a sweet
man, but he knew nothing. So what does he do in the
exhibition opening? He takes these people-- I told him
about the boxes, each box in the show, and he had a
photographic memory. He's taking people at an opening
around on a tour in groups of ten explaining each box to
them, and what's inside, and all about it. And out of the
twenty- two we sold nineteen boxes that day, you know.
Simone says, "Well, are you happy?"
I said yes. I said, "What about these other two boxes
He said, "Well, the printer, he wants one for the
trade of the catalog," which was, I don't know, $1,500 or
$2,000. "He wants to trade you for one. And if you're any
kind of a guy at all worthwhile, not a heel like some of my
artist friends, you will give me one of these boxes for
doing all of this for you." So, that took care of them. I
had one left and by the end of the show, that was sold to a
doctor who was one of his biggest collectors.
SMITH: Now, you had left Simone earlier because he wasn't
showing your work often enough?
WAGNER: Right, he was not featuring me anymore. He wasn't
interested, you know. He had love affairs with other
artists. I mean, when he sold art, he'd go "Look! What
you're looking at [is] a fantastic piece! How can you
resist it?" And he'd get some poor soul trapped in there,
[laughter] He had a beautiful gallery to do it in. I
don't know if you remember the gallery or not, but--
WAGNER: It was an excellent gallery. It was one of the
prettiest galleries in L.A. because it was out of all the
mess. It was a big gallery in the front, maybe forty feet
square, and then there was a patio garden that had an
overhang that you walked out into, where he had his
receptions and things, and that was all art. He had huge
storage racks . Then you went into a room where there were
just little drawings. Then all the way around his house
he'd put a glass atrium, and the whole back between the
house and the fence was all the gallery with gardens and
trees. It was just gorgeous. It was a beautiful place. I
said, "How come you're going to move into this place?
Nobody's going to come down here."
He said, "Zipcode 49. We have all the money. Don't
you worry. They'll come here before they go to La
Cienega," he says. And he was right. He built it, and he
lived there. He lived in the house inside.
SMITH: Were you also submitting every year to the Los
Angeles County [Museum of History, Science, and Art] annual
WAGNER: In the beginning, yeah, I usually would, until
they canceled that out. I submitted to very few
exhibitions, unless they were very important ones. In
those days, they had very big shows. They don't do that
anymore in museums, they just don't bother, like the
Corcoran [Gallery] back East.
SMITH: Like your picture that is in the Denver [Art]
Museum, how did that get there?
WAGNER: That was actually a competitive award, a purchase
award. That's how it got there.
SMITH: So you would keep track of what the various shows
were that were going on around the country and decide if
you wanted to submit?
WAGNER: You mean in those days?
SMITH: In those days, yeah.
WAGNER: Not too much. There was one place in L.A. at that
time, it was called Brugger ' s Fine Arts Fowarding Service,
and they had a list of what was going on. That was it.
And the newspaper, the [Los Angeles] Times, they would
always announce these things in the Times for important
exhibitions when Arthur Millier was the critic. They don't
do that anymore either. They don't bother.
SMITH: Another thing that Kienholz mentions in his
interview is that in the late fifties, mid- to late
fifties, there was an attitude of the younger artists, the
artists around Ferus--! think he means more than that, the
beat-generation group--that they were sick and tired of the
art that was represented by [Lorser] Feitelson and [Howard]
Warshaw and [Keith] Finch, and he runs off a list of names
along with those, art that they thought was just crap and
that they wanted to get away from and destroy. How did you
feel at that time? Did you share that kind of a feeling,
that that generation was pretty much crap?
WAGNER: That's exactly why I didn't have anything more to
do with them, because that sort of attitude, sort of snob
attitude of Hollywood. It was strictly a Hollywood clique,
the whole bunch of them. I mean, all of them were a
Hollywood clique, young, semi-beat people. They were all
friends; half of them knew each other from Kansas and other
parts of the United States. There was a snob thing about
that group. I've been in fights with artists of that
group, on what you're saying, like [Craig] Kauffman, and
Bob Irwin, and people like that, people who berated other
artists and put them down, that their work was no good,
while they're standing there showing me one line and a
scribble on a piece of butcher's paper that's in an
exhibition, calling that the great, you know. That's what
really turned me off to the whole lot of them. I still
have never forgiven most of them, because I still don't
think they're that important, most of them. They're living
on their own publicity and believing it. I still don't
think they should be featured as the "syndicate" artists,
because I don't think they really warrant it. You can't--
I appreciate all artists. I mean, they have a right to be
artists and they have a right to their expression just the
way they are, whatever they want to do. If they want to
paint it with feces, or pee on it, or burn it with
cigarettes, or draw on it, fine. But they should not go
around putting down other artists who are doing a different
expression. This defeats the whole philosophy of artists
and painters. Although, it's common. I think one time
there was in the- -at some place in Spain there was a large
Rubens, and they commissioned El Greco to paint a painting,
I believe, in there. And he said, "I wouldn't bother at
all in here unless I can paint over all this crap that's on
the wall." So it goes back several centuries that artists
think this way. I don't believe in negating other
artists. There's always going to-- Artists are limited by
their own limitations, and if a guy can't do any better
than he's doing, that's his problem. But not to cut him
down, not to cut down people like Lebrun, who gave his soul
and his heart and his love for his drawings and his work
and was a powerful artist. If I took a Lebrun and a
Warshaw and a Keith Finch and put the three up against the
wall and I took one of those guys--I'm not going to talk
about them; just forget them--and put one of their works in
between, you wouldn't even notice their work it would be so
weak and wishy-washy. I'm not being old-fashioned about
art. I just don't think that Warshaw and Finch and Lebrun
and Channing Peake and Bob [Robert] Chuey and Herb
[Herbert] Jepson and [Michael] Murphy, who were instructors
to all these half-wits and taught them all they knew from
the beginning, to have them turn around on their own
instructors and belittle them and call themselves a power
when they had nothing going at all-- Nobody cared about
them. Nobody cared about Warshaw; he was a minor figure.
Finch struggled; but he had his own problems to confront.
And as for Lebrun, he was a very powerful European man who
became very sick and died. He had a different soul than
these people. How can this brash bunch of Hollywood
[people with] surface to about down to here in life go
around putting down a man who's got a soul thirty feet
deep? Because they were just a bunch of snots in those
days. Just young; wanted to change the world. How the
hell could they change the world? The dadaists did it
years ago. They were trying to do something the dadaists
had already done. Neo-dadaism has got to be very boring.
SMITH: We have a lot of places to go with this, but you
said you got into a number of fights, not physical
WAGNER: Just discussions.
WAGNER: Arguments. Usually we came to some kind of-- I
always walked out of the place feeling that I hadn't a
problem, but the others would take offense. So that
meant-- Naturally, if an artist takes offense to somebody
else, that means his own work is weak in the first place,
right? Because you don't take offense to somebody who--
Like if it had been Feitelson or Lebrun or one of those
guys and they said, "I hate your art," they'd say, "That's
great! I love it; it's better than giving me some false
criticism of it. I'm glad to hear you hate it. It makes
me happy." You see? But these guys, if you would mention
anything, "What is this that you're doing that is so deeply
evolved here?" [grumbles] They'd get going and they'd
come over in groups and want to fist fight you, you know.
Well, you see, that shows a sign of weakness right there.
I laughed at it, you know, and would walk out of the place
with a couple of writer friends of mine.
SMITH: Kienholz, in his oral history, says--
WAGNER: He was never that way. Never that way. Kienholz
was a real person. Not anything to do with that group at
SMITH: Yeah, he left in '58, I guess.
WAGNER: Had nothing to do with that group.
SMITH: He said in his oral history that he really doesn't,
he never knew much about art history. I don't know if this
is true or not, but this is what he said in his oral
WAGNER: I doubt if he did. I doubt if he really did.
SMITH: And he wasn't interested.
WAGNER: He wasn't interested in it, no.
SMITH: What about, from your perception--did the people in
the group, the Ferus group, seem to know much of art
history? Did they know about dada?
WAGNER: We never discussed any of those kinds of things,
because I don ' t think any of them even worried about art
history. A lot of these guys were like they were inventing
the typewriter, you know? Like it had never been done
SMITH: Well, what about you at that time, were you--
WAGNER: I wasn't interested in art history. I looked at
books and paintings, contemporary art magazines, but I
never really was interested in art history at that time. I
didn't really get into art history until I went to Europe
and got involved in living there and seeing and feeling,
understanding that these guys are a bunch of second-rate
citizens. You know, when you go to Europe and you see real
art, you know, real masters. We're the only country in the
world that gets away with this kind of stuff. Because
Hollywood's big, powerful media. Gave it a lot of impact
in those days. Now they don't even — they Ignore those
SMITH: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by that.
WAGNER: Hollywood is not even interested in artists.
SMITH: Would you explain what you mean by that, I'm not
WAGNER: Well, in those days, Hollywood gave all those
people big impact. They were all in a clique. The
filmmakers, and the artists, and the writers, and the
poets, and the faggots, and all these people, they all
SMITH: You mean in the sixties?
WAGNER: — together, and it was a very synthetic world.
SMITH: In the sixties are we talking about?
SMITH: Say at the time of that big show in '66, the Six
Los Angeles Artists show?
WAGNER: You mean in the museum?
SMITH: At the [ Los Angeles] County Museum of Art.
WAGNER: Most of them were in that show, naturally.
They were in it, sure. But I always felt that you could
never become part of their clique, you know? They lived in
another world over there. I never was part of Hollywood in
my life, and I'm still never going to be part of Hollywood,
because it's a symbol that I don't like, you know. They
built it up. They've got enough media people on television
and movies and documentary films, all different ways of
building up that particular group. And then, of course,
all of the galleries have cashed in on them to take a loss,
Dwan Gallery, and people like that.
SMITH: Do you think that group was built up- -is it your
feeling, your reaction, that that group was built up at the
expense of other artists in the area, not just the older
artists, but a broader range of artists?
WAGNER: Well, by that group forming, it's excluded about
90 percent of the artists in California. Yeah, the powers
to be. It's changing now, though, because I've noticed now
that a lot of the old museum directors and curators are not
men anymore, and the women are interested in other ways of
thinking, I think. They're becoming more tolerant to the
other artists, and it's coming back, slowly. I think these
guys will just be a passing fancy. You can't live with
minimal art for the rest of your life, you know. It's
SMITH: Let me ask you, in terms of the artist groups that
you were involved in, were there any black artists or
Mexican artists, Mexican-American artists?
WAGNER: In that group, or any group?
SMITH: The groups that you were involved with.
WAGNER: I was involved in the Sixty-six Signs of Neon
group with Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell and John
Outterbridge, and a lot of black artists.
SMITH: What about in terms of the Los Angeles art
community, was it an integrated community? Were there
blacks and Chicanes involved?
WAGNER: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. Yeah, there were always
blacks and Chicano artists in California. Oh, yeah.
SMITH: But were they involved in the galleries? Same
things you were going to? Who were some of the people that
WAGNER: Mel Edwards was one, who was a sculptor, black
sculptor. I knew all of these guys I just mentioned, these
black artists. There was a lot of Chicano art--Frank
Romero and Chavez, and all of that group from Los Four.
There's always been a connection; even Indians, American
Indians, Navaho Indians. I was involved there, I had an
exhibition once--well, three of us were actually having an
exhibition together at Simone Gallery: Roland Reese and--
SMITH: Roland Reese is black?
WAGNER: Roland Reese is white. He was in Denver then, he
was a painter. He wasn't doing the environments, he was
actually doing painting. And Carl Gorman, who was R. C.
Gorman's father, who was a Navaho, who was an excellent
painter. [R. C.] Gorman is a commercial hack, you know,
just knock them out sort of thing. But actually, his
father was a painter. We were with Simone there. He had
Mexican artists, Cuevas and [Leonel] G6ngora.
SMITH: But in Los Angeles, within the Los Angeles
community, were the black artists, the Mexican-American
artists at the same galleries, were they at the same
WAGNER: They had the Brockman Gallery on Degnan Boulevard
that's been going for years, a black gallery in the
Crenshaw district. They showed wonderful black artists'
works, you know.
SMITH: One gets the sense that it was only a handful of
white artists who became important in terms of Los Angeles
in the fifties and sixties.
WAGNER: It's true. The others were rejected by the Ferus
Gallery, who took it over. They were the ones who really
were responsible for cutting everything down of all the
other artists, and just building this one group, the
SMITH: What about women artists in Los Angeles in the
fifties and sixties?
WAGNER: Oh, there were lots of women artists.
SMITH: Such as?
WAGNER: They're not-- There were hundreds and hundreds of
male artists and hundreds and hundreds of women artists,
and they were all exhibiting somewhere, in galleries and
museums. But when it came to the international scene and
the big scene, they were cut out, just like that, to this
select group. And that's why, the reason, right now
artists are getting a little bit irritated by it, I'm
sure. Especially by the new museums, where they're still
cut out, most of the California artist, along with a few
others, and show all over the world, different places, to
be cut out of an exhibition that's supposed to be a museum
for Los Angeles artists, and then it's all New York. Or
these damn galleries that-- Few "syndicates, " you know.
It'll always be that way until they get rid of the powers
SMITH: The powers that be, who are?
WAGNER: Well, New York, basically. [Leo] Castelli, Walter
SMITH: You got into a fistfight with Walter Hopps once.
WAGNER: Well, not a fistfight. I just punched him. No,
he didn't retaliate. [laughter]
SMITH: Could you explain what happened?
WAGNER: Well, he just wanted all of the artists to be--
have nothing to do with the other artists in town, stay
away from all other artists and just be exclusive.
SMITH: He told this to the —
WAGNER: He told that to the group, and Dane Dixon said,
"Punch the son of a bitch in the nose."
SMITH: Where did this take place?
WAGNER: In the Ferus Gallery.
SMITH: In the Ferus Gallery. About what time, do you
WAGNER: What year?
SMITH: What year, yeah.
WAGNER: Probably in the sixties.
SMITH: Were you drunk at the time?
WAGNER: No, it was the late fifties.
SMITH: So you were kind of angry, and--
WAGNER: Oh, I really used to get really, emotionally angry
in those days with people who came up with that kind of
garbage. I didn't care who he was.
SMITH: So you heard him say this, or-- I'm trying to
reconstruct the circumstances. You were all in the Ferus
Gallery, and Walter Hopps was talking--
WAGNER: With Jim [James] Elliott and a few other people, a
few other directors.
They all came one time, I remember, to an exhibition
at Sears Roebuck in Westwood that was put on by Arthur
Secunda. There was an Invitational show for 150 artists in
the show. We each had a space, like fifteen to twenty
pieces. It opened on the night that [John F.] Kennedy was
shot, that day, so it had a rather depressed start. So
they didn't open it until the next night, the following
day. All of this group, all of these young shavetails, you
know, young guys that looked like little babies. There was
Walter, and there was Jim Elliott, a couple of other museum
directors, all walking through the place all dressed up in
suits and neckties and looking very, very efficient, and
not speaking to a soul in the place. They were all in the
exhibition; they were all represented, every one of them.
But it was something. I'll never forget that scene as long
as I live. You could see how that whole clique was
embedded right there and who ran it, locked right in.
This is what I'm talking about. Then I said, "You
poor, unfortunate people who have sold out for the rest of
your lives, you can't even make art, you've got to get some
guy in Santa Monica to make your art for you."
SMITH: Meaning? What are you talking about?
WAGNER: There's a guy in Santa Monica that makes all their
art for them. They just order it, and they make it, the
plastic stuff. They don't do anything. They just give
them a design and they make it.
SMITH: Well, it's their design, though.
WAGNER: Yeah, I know. Send me fifty pieces for a show in
New York; send me fifty pieces for a show in Chicago, all
the same, you know. There's a guy in Santa Monica that
does that kind of stuff. I met him one time at Renata
Druck ' s party. He told me he does it for all of them.
SMITH: Did you —
WAGNER: That's not sincere to me when an artist has
somebody else building their art for them. There's nothing
there, they're just a bunch of commercial hacks! It's sad.
And they are the ones who they actually publicize, and the
museums haven't got brains enough to know that, they've
been so brainwashed, you know.
SMITH: Did you ever apologize to Hopps?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah, we're friends. I've seen him a lot of
times, he says, "Gordon, how ya doing? What you think
about opening a gallery in Topanga Canyon," when he's about
ready to steal an assemblage out of George [Herms]'s house.
[laughter] "I've got to come and see what you're doing."
SMITH: Does he come and see what you're doing?
WAGNER: No. Richmond Art Center, somebody was having a
SMITH: Where Tom [Thomas] Marioni was?
WAGNER: Somebody was having a class up there at Richmond
Art Center in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley or--
WAGNER: Richmond. This young student told me, "I was
talking the other day to my teacher about you, and I said,
'Well, Gordon Wagner told me this, ' and this man came
around from the back of the wall and said, 'Where the
hell's Gordon Wagner, tell him hello.' And he said, 'Who
are you?' And he said, 'My name's Walter Hopps.'"
[laughter] This is about a year or two ago. I like Walter
as a person. I think he's-- He has a nice personality.
He had a mental breakdown too, you know, himself.
Arthur Secunda took over his class. But he was-- No, I
have nothing against Walter Hopps at all now. I think he's
okay. It's just a question. I have nothing against any of
these people, they can do whatever they want to do. But I
think they're being too exclusive in the museums by only
including a few of the-- Like [Henry] Geldzahler in New
York: I remember I read something he made a statement on
one time. He said, "The artists have got to be tough on
themselves. Because from now on in the art [world], there
aren't going to be any new discoveries. We're going to
take the older artists and put them in the cartel and leave
it that way." You see? And that's what's happening.
SMITH: Well, back at this time, in the mid-fifties, late
fifties, early sixties, were you a beatnik?
WAGNER: Well, I was a little old to be beat, but I was
always with the beats. I guess you might have called me an
older beat. The beat generation in the fifties were
probably in their twenties, right?
WAGNER: And in the fifties I was in my forties. I was
very sympathetic to the beats, and I hung out at all their
beat coffeehouses. They visited me, and they liked me, in
Topanga Canyon. Topanga was sort of a dropping-off place
between San Francisco and Venice. It was a very active
place for beats. Yeah, and I loved the beat poets, and I
knew the beats, and I went to the Gashouse, the beat scene,
and other coffeehouses, at Bob [Robert] De Witt's in
SMITH: Were you writing poetry at the time?
WAGNER: Yeah, I'd written some. I never wrote poetry, I
wrote word pictures. I was never a poet in the sense of
being a poet, you know, just word pictures.
SMITH: Okay. Well, briefly continuing the chronology, you
stayed in Topanga, then your wife died, then you moved to
Mexico. When did you come back to the United States, then.
WAGNER: Well, I moved down there for about two years, two
or three years. I came back about 1962, back to Topanga .
SMITH: Same place or different?
WAGNER: No, I rented-- I knew this friend, a girl in
Topanga who used to eat with me at Bob De Witt's, and she
was going away. She wanted me to rent her house, because
she didn't know how long she would be gone. She might be
gone for a year or ten years. So she had a great studio
downstairs and the house on the top, all nice windows. It
was just gorgeous. Well, I rented it for $40 a month. A
beautiful place. At the end of the year, she came back, so
I had to move. I moved down to the Silver Lake district.
Echo Park area .
SMITH: You knew [Ramblin'] Jack Eliot?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah, I knew him in Topanga when he used to
sit on the highway and sort of entertain people while they
were changing tires on their cars, and help people along
the road. He'd always travel on the road with his guitar.
That ' s before he went to Spain on his motorcycle and fell
into the lake. [laughter] He always told me that story.
He was going around this curve, and he doesn't know what
happened at all, but the next thing, the motorcycle and
himself were both in the lake. [laughter] Yeah, I liked
Jack Eliot. He's a sweet man.
SMITH: And Lord Buckley you knew?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah, the Lord lived there. He lived in a
place called Buchanan Flats, and they'd set up this old,
kind of an auto-camp house.
SMITH: Why was he called Lord Buckley?
WAGNER: Well, he classified himself as that. All the
people were princes or princesses, and his wife was Lady
Buckley. Lady Buckley wore pink leotards and danced
about, A beautiful person, really. She spent most of her
time up out of Las Vegas in Mattress City, where he had
five acres of mattresses stretched out across the land, and
they would dance and spring in the mattresses. That's
where Lady Buckley spent most of her time. He was so
square! He wouldn't even allow a porch swing on his back
"Lord" --this is viewing the Grand Canyon- -"Lord, look
at that." [imitates Buckley] "What a gasser, that's the
biggest ditch I've ever seen." [laughter]
He was a marvelous man. Great voice; one of the
greatest voices I think we've had, according to Henry
Miller; he even thinks that. And ad-libbed right off the
top of his head. He'd come out with things and really make
SMITH: Did you know [Jack] Kerouac or Neil Cassidy?
WAGNER: No, I never met either Kerouac or Neil Cassidy. I
met [Gregory] Corso and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti and Snyder,
Gary Snyder, those sorts of people. From San Francisco
SMITH: Down in Topanga, or--
WAGNER: I met them in Topanga. I met two of them-- I met
Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, but I met the other two in
SMITH: Did you think of Topanga as being a place that had
WAGNER: Oh, yeah, energy; great place. Great place for
just about everything. It does have a-- It has its own--
It's a music canyon, that's what it is.
SMITH: What do you mean by that?
WAGNER: I don't know, it just generates music. It just
comes out of the rocks and mountains.
SMITH: So there was something special about it that wasn't
in, say, Beverly Glen or Laurel Canyon or--
WAGNER: Oh, different altogether than Laurel Canyon,
that's Hollywood, you know. And the [San Fernando] Valley
was different, and Malibu was different. No, Topanga was
an isolated community that was full of people who just
wanted to get away from all of those other things.
Eccentrics, absolutely. No, it was-- There was a
ruralness, but yet there was a sophistication. There was
an intellect, and there was the primitive. It had all of
these different facets that you can't get in a homogenized
place like Laurel Canyon, full of corporate people and
company-oriented types and professionals. Never had any of
that in Topanga . Now they do, I'm sure, but they didn't in
those days. I'm sure they found it now and ruined it. It
can't be the same.
SMITH: You never lived in Venice?
WAGNER: Yeah, I lived in Venice. I lived there for about
a year, not quite, nine months. I lived in May Murray's
boudoir, down by the Ballona Creek bridge in an old
Moorish- type house. I had a nice studio there,
temporarily. I liked it.
SMITH: You mentioned before that after your wife died, you
never really worked again.
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 7, 1987
SMITH: Well, Gordon, I wanted to ask you how and where you
met Virginia [Copeland Wagner], your second wife, and when.
WAGNER: I met Virginia in 1963 in Oaxaca, Mexico, on the
evening of December 18 in the atrium of the Soledad church
at a fiesta for the patron saint of Oaxaca, the Virgin of
SMITH: Like those drawings, you captured that in the
drawings in the exhibit.
WAGNER: They were with the fireworks and all of the
Indians. A huge celebration, because it is one of the
biggest celebrations in Oaxaca. And, funny, in the
afternoon I met a woman who I had talked to in the
drugstore in front of the house where I lived in Oaxaca,
and we were talking about Arizona and New Mexico and
Navahos and whatnot. And she said, "I have a friend here
in Oaxaca that lived with the Navahos; you might like to
meet her." And this same lady, with her friend, came to
the fiesta. I saw them, and she walked over, introduced me
to Virginia, and I said, Yata-hel, in Navaho, which means
hello. And that is when she said Yata-hei back. So we
talked a little bit. I lifted her up so she could see over
the heads of all these people, the fireworks, the
castillos, and she got very indignant about that.
SMITH: You didn't ask her if you could pick her up?
WAGNER: No, I just liked her, so I picked her clear up.
[laughter] She disappeared on me after that. I used to
see her around Oaxaca, and she'd wave, but she always had
somebody with her, people walking with her. She had very
long hair and braided yarn in her pony tail. It was
beautiful to see her walking. I drove around in my old
jeep a lot. One day I'm drawing in my studio, and there
was a knock on the door. It was Virginia asking me--well,
my friend was with me, Hedy [Mergenthaler] , my Swiss
mistress--if we'd like to come for a drink at their place
in the Pension Suisse, which was in Oaxaca, where they were
staying, for a couple of days from then. I thought it was
a good idea. I don't know about Hedy, what she thought of
the idea. So we went to the party, and I remember I drank
up most all their scotch. At least that's what Virginia
told me later. Then I took her around to different places,
she and her friend, to different villages and some other
fiestas, a New Year's Eve party in Teotitlan del Valle,
which is a weaving town of Oaxaca. And she danced. She
was a dancer from New York; she lived at that time in Santa
Fe, New Mexico. She was teaching dance and had a school at
the fine arts museum in Santa Fe [Museum of New Mexico] . I
didn't see anymore of her after that, I took off. I was
going back to the United States just about the time I met
her. I didn't see her anymore until about 1967. I had a
friend who lived in Rustic Canyon who went to Saint John's
College in Santa Fe, and I said, "Well, I think it would be
nice if you met this lady, Virginia, you'd like her." So
it was kind of a liaison I was establishing between us.
They kept in contact, and when Virginia came to California,
she came to stay with my friend in Rustic Canyon. Well, I
was teaching in Rustic Canyon that day when she showed up,
and I just picked her up. [laughter]
SMITH: Again without asking her?
WAGNER: She didn't complain that time. I'd already
separated from my mistress. She ran off with my best
friend in Mexico a year before. A guy named Paul. We went
on a trip down there, and she just decided she wanted to go
with him. So I was a year without any lady.
SMITH: Can I ask you —
WAGNER: So Virginia came along about the right time. We
were married in 1967 on a rock in Topanga Canyon by I
Ching. And then we were married by the justice of peace in
Albuquerque [New Mexico] in July.
SMITH: Of '67?
WAGNER: Yeah, first we were married May 30, then in July
by the justice of the peace. That's nineteen years ago,
SMITH: Then you were married again when you became
Catholics. When you converted to Catholicism you were
married for a third time?
WAGNER: I was married twice again to her. That was way
back. [The Catholic ceremony] was only six years ago.
SMITH: Why do you refer to Hedy as your mistress and not
just your girlfriend? You always use that term.
WAGNER: Well, she wasn't a girlfriend, she lived with
me. She was my lady, I guess you'd call her.
SMITH: There's no special reason.
WAGNER: We're still good friends, Hedy and I are good
friends. She lives in Mount Washington. She has a good
job with a Mexican airline, one of the managers. Yeah,
we're good friends.
SMITH: And Virginia, when you met her she was a dancer?
WAGNER: Yeah, she taught dance in Santa Fe, she had a
school. And she was a dancer in New York before that, in
dance companies. She had her school there in Columbia
SMITH: After you married her, is that when you moved to
New Mexico, or did she move to Echo Park?
WAGNER : She moved to Echo Park . I haven ' t been back to
SMITH: New Mexico.
WAGNER: No, I haven't been back to Mexico since, but New
Mexico, we used to go back and forth to New Mexico in the
sununer. Stay for two or three months.
SMITH: You haven't been back to Mexico--
WAGNER : No .
SMITH: --since 19677 Not once?
SMITH: Not even to cross the border?
WAGNER : No .
SMITH: Why not?
WAGNER: I don't know, just never have any desire to go
SMITH: That whole side of you is now gone?
WAGNER: Just disappeared.
WAGNER: I was talking to a friend of mine last night, he
was kind of keying me up to go back. I don't think it's
the same as it was when I was there, you know. It's
probably changed so much, the different places. But you
never know, it might still be fine-- Because a lot of
people go back there and love it, you know.
SMITH: Well, once when we were talking you mentioned that
after Alcatraz, after the Indians occupied Alcatraz, that
you felt you really shouldn' t--it was becoming more
difficult to do the Indian motifs in your work.
WAGNER: After Alcatraz?
SMITH: After the Indians occupied Alcatraz. So in
general, about this time you're moving away from the
Mexican and the Indian and the Asian influences in your
work, after '67?
WAGNER: Yeah, I think I'd already been through it. I
mean, our lives change. We go through different cycles
about every seven or eight years, different values and
different ways of seeing and doing things. Different
blondes or redheads or brunettes; some guys change women,
and other people change moods, and countries, and feelings.
I think that it's always underneath; you never forget those
things, they're always underneath. You're not divorcing
them out of your mind. But I don't think you have to
dwell on them forever, I think you can move on to other
SMITH: This is a followup question from our last session,
but in Icon to Great Railroads, you take all these railroad
things that you've found. The railroads were one of the
main ways of destroying the Indian way of life in the
western part of the United States, and you take all these
railroad objects, and then you construct them into
something that looks like an Indian piece of art. I mean,
to me there's a social comment in it.
WAGNER: Well, railroad pieces to me don't really go along
with that. Railroad pieces to me-- The railroad was a very
romantic piece of machinery, especially the old railroads.
SMITH: But the old railroads were what destroyed the
Indians, or one of the things that destroyed the Indian way
of life, the laying down of the railroads.
WAGNER: Did I say that?
SMITH: No, you didn't say that.
WAGNER: I never thought I said it, because I don't think
the old railroads ever destroyed the Indians' way of life,
not at all. Indians could care less about the railroad.
There were people-- In fact, I don't think the Indians' way
of life is destroyed at all; I think their way of life is
stonger than ours, because they have the inner soul of-- An
Indian will always be an Indian, and we can't ever be an
Indian or know what the Indian's thinking, no way. They're
Indians. I don't care if we were here for ten thousand
more years, we could never understand the Indians' way of
life, because their nature-- They have their own spirits
and their own gods and their own values. The railroad
could go through the reservation, they'd take what they
could off of it. If something was thrown away, they'd use
it. They would take advantage of the railroad, because the
railroad to them would be just — They don't use the
railroad themselves, and actually railroads don't go
through their reservations in any place. The reservations
are set apart. Like the Navaho reservation is-- A third of
Arizona belongs to the Navahos, and the railroad runs along
the edge of it. Indians don't live anyplace near the
railroad. When the settlers in the West came out, they
wanted to kill the Indians, but they came in covered
wagons, and they came by horse, and they came in a lot of
ways before the railroad came along. Actually, the
railroad employed Indians to build the railroad. It didn't
bother them if they were laying ties or doing something
else. I don't think the railroad destroyed the Indians at
all, the way of life, because the Apaches are very alive;
the Navahos are alive; the Hopis are alive; the Paiutes are
alive; the Sioux and the Shoshone, they're all alive. The
ones who have lost some of their culture are maybe the
Osage and the Indians who own oil wells in Oklahoma, some
of them. Not in the Southwest.
TAPE NUMBER: IX, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 14, 1987
SMITH: Today I wanted to get into a discussion of your
boxes. It's a big topic. Can you tell me when you
started? When did you begin to make boxes?
WAGNER: Well, my first boxes were different from the boxes
of today. My first boxes were actually made in Mexico
using a lot of the objects found in Mexico, in junk places
and out in the graveyards and carnivals and whatnot, where
I could pick up objects. Those boxes were related to a lot
of the Day of the Dead and humorous things about Mexico in
sort of a funky way.
SMITH: This was in the early sixties?
WAGNER: Yeah, yeah.
SMITH: At the same time you were doing Fioneraria and
Between Heaven and Hell?
WAGNER: Yeah, right, early sixties, exactly. Then the
development started, and I went through various ways of
doing boxes with different expressions. They became the
object, but I got away from Mexico. A lot of the boxes
were almost like putting objects in, like assemblage
pieces, you know, but they usually were a narrative in
mind. But there was still that old material, old rusty
toys or rusty trains and things, rusty pieces of wood and
junk and metal, related to painting in the background.
SMITH: Now, in Mexico, in Mexican folk art, you have the
arks, and the cathedrals, sporting scenes, where all the
little clay figures are put together. There's even a box
form where the folk artists will just put in like a whole
kitchen, all these little toy kitchen utensils. Were you
familiar with those kinds of things?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. I used to enjoy looking at them, but I
never really used that as a stimulation for my work,
because that kind of narrative didn't interest me. Mine
was more on the humor and dada relationship.
SMITH: You were in Oaxaca in the early sixties, right?
WAGNER : Yeah .
SMITH: Did you know any of the artists who worked-- Indian
artists or Mexican artists, folk artists, who worked in
Oaxaca, like Teodora Blanco in [Santa Maria de] Atzompa?
WAGNER: Well, I met them, I met a few, but basically I was
doing my own work. Artists just don't socialize much in
Oaxaca. Even [Rufino] Tamayo was around there at one time,
you know. But no, that-- I knew a few in Oaxaca, painters,
Figueroa, people like this. And Laventa. A few people
that I actually came in contact with by looking for
objects, they seemed to be interested in the same sort of
thing that I was, and I got to know them pretty well. I
was really into my own work there, completely. And really
feeling Mexico, the Indian of the Zapotec and their
culture. I knew more anthropologists than I knew
artists. They were studying the Oaxacan market system.
They said it was the most complex market system in the
world, the traveling market, everyday it went to a
different town. They seemed to interest me more, because I
was sort of being-- Constructing my boxes and doing my
objects, I was sort of an anthropologist in my own rights,
by using the things of their culture and rearranging them.
SMITH: What were the boxes that you did in the early
WAGNER: Well, a lot of boxes that I did at that time were
the Day of the Dead, The Devil Set the Church on Fire. The
titles are numerous ; I'm trying to remember some of the
better ones. The Bracero. A lot of boxes related to love
and Indians. There was one box in particular that I really
liked (it's in a collection now), called The Spectator.
SMITH: Could you —
WAGNER: It belongs in a collection.
SMITH: Whose collection?
WAGNER: I'm trying to remember her name. She lives in
Santa Monica. Paula Fishman. She was with Anhalt Gallery
for years. That particular box was using a cardboard piece
of folk art they call entierro, or the interment. When you
turn the crank, the procession, the funeral procession,
came up- -first came the people carrying the coffin, then
came the procession, and then came the priest, and it went
around on an endless belt. It came up through the devil's
mouth and went down through the gates of heaven, around and
around it went on a crank. I had bones on the box sticking
out. Then they made coffins that you pulled the string and
the corpse would look out of the hole in the coffin, and I
had that centered in the piece. So every time the funeral
passed above or underneath the man in the coffin, I had it
hooked up so that he would pop out of the coffin to look at
his own funeral. He was the spectator. It's a beautiful
The other one was the Day of the Dead box I did for
another collector by the name of Niels Baggi, who was a
great collector of those sort of boxes. He was one of
my collectors from the [Silvan] Simone Gallery. He had one
where the coffin was on the table, and all of these things
were going on in the foreground. You'd pull the string on
the outside and the man popped up to look at all of the
people and things about him. You could look up in the
corner and you could see him in the mirror from the box, so
he didn't--you could still see him, it was reflected
down. These were funny boxes at that time, in Mexico.
Using things off the street: pieces of this, fragments of
that, angels and devils and all sorts of metals. But not
busy, not just thrown together, but a narrative. Less is
more. Down to the essence, but using black velvet and
laces and all these things.
SMITH: How did Simone feel about your boxes?
WAGNER: Well, about The Spectator box, in particular, I
remember he had it in the very front of the gallery on the
wall as you came in. He had about three hunting dogs, and
one of the hunting dog's names was Kasha. And every
morning. Kasha would go in the door, go over to The
Spectator, and sit up and howl, and bay and bay at this
piece that was in the gallery at that time, before it was
sold to Paula Fishman out of that show. So Simone always
felt that my works--as I told you once before, I was a
risk, you know. He just respected me for what I did, and
my free spirit, you know.
SMITH: Did your boxes sell?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Well, that one sold.
SMITH: Much better than the assemblages?
WAGNER: About the same, yeah.
SMITH: But you said that the assemblages hardly sold at
WAGNER: That's right, in the very beginning, but he did
sell some assemblages. In the first show, as I said, my
assemblages, people didn't hardly see them, except the
critic, [Arthur] Millier, who gave me a great review on the
assemblages, and sort of didn't pay much attention to the
SMITH: The boxes are somewhat of an unusual art form.
Conceptually, what were you drawing on when you decided to
put things into a box form? Were you already familiar with
the work of [Joseph] Cornell?
WAGNER: Well, I was familiar with Cornell, but I really
wasn't that much interested in Cornell at that moment, or
any other artist of box construction, actually. I wasn't
even stimulated by other artists at that point, because I
was in Mexico so much I didn't see them. Actually, the
thing that really got me into boxes, I think was that it
was a lot more--it fit better for me to combine objects and
work in three dimensions than on a two-dimensional
surface. I was tired of painting; I'd painted too long. It
was an excitement to move through assemblage. And I knew
that assemblage--! was going to get into something else,
and the box just manifested itself for me from these old
funky boxes like I'm talking about in Mexico. They got
more concise, more symbolic, for a while. I was using-- In
the mid-sixties, '67, '68, during the revolution of the
psychedelics and whatnot, there was a great period in there
when everything was spiritual and centered, mandalic in
form. And the mandala, I went into that pretty much, and I
created probably a hundred boxes related to centered forms,
the centering of the light. That took me back when I
moved-- When I was married to Virginia, we moved to New
Mexico, where it was possible for me to go to wonderful
dumps in New Mexico, just outstanding dumps. No one in New
Mexico, in Taos, was particularly interested in assemblage
so I had the whole thing to myself, practically, until two
or three other artists that I met, who came to see me, I
found out they were also doing assemblages. So we used to
spend-- We'd have more fun going to a dump than we would
any other social function in Taos. Enjoyed the dump,
enjoyed each other, have our picnics and really have a
SMITH: What dumps were you going to?
WAGNER: Well, one was in Hondo; it was a wonderful one up
on the top of a mountain. You drove up around and there it
was on the crest of the hill. Marvelous dump. Things
there that had gone back, oh, I imagine 150 years, laying
around in that dump. The other dump was an especially
exciting dump because it was long. You forded a river, and
then you drove up this long road winding through all of the
debris, from refrigerators to old cars to pieces of this
and fragments of that, dead animals and bones, objects and
junk. Then you curved around and the final destination was
the Penitente Cemetery of Valdez Valley. So it would be
nothing while you were in the dump to have to stand at
attention and bow for a funeral that was going by through
the dump to arrive up at the top of the cemetery.
Actually, the cemetery, all around the cemetery, was also a
dump. So you could-- They had a fence there to keep the
goats out from chewing up the paper flowers from the
crosses and other things, but basically the dump surrounded
the cemetery even on the top. This dump was hundreds of
years of civilization. Things there that were
magnificent! So therefore, when I found these dumps and I
found these things, it was —
SMITH: Like what?
WAGNER: I started working into this form because I was
interested in the centering, in the spiritual, the Buddha,
the Taoist, the mystics, the meditation, the American
Indian, the quaternity of the four directions. All these
things were laid out for me right there.
SMITH: Were these Hispano dumps? or Anglo? or Indian?
WAGNER: No, all Hispano. Yeah, both of them. No Indian
dumps there, no. What was so nice about that form was that
they were contemplative. They were not really narrative,
they were more fetishlike, power pieces, you know. And
they would combine painting, geometric painting and
whatnot, in relation to the objects themselves, which were
all sorts of American Indian and Spanish imagery.
SMITH: Do Mexico and Fetish come from that period? The
two boxes, the large boxes that you had in your show?
WAGNER: Yeah, they both come from that period. The Fetish
comes a little later, but the Hexico comes from that period
SMITH: And is that stuff that you found in Mexico or New
WAGNER: There I found in Mexico.
WAGNER: But it all — That was about '64.
SMITH: 'Sixty-eight is Mexico.
WAGNER: No, I mean when I found the stuff.
SMITH: Oh. The Devil Exorcisor is from that period,
WAGNER: Yeah, it is, but it's a whole different concept.
It's an enclosed box all the way around with mirrors,
sending the devil to infinity. It's different.
SMITH: And then you have the box with the adobe house with
the train-- I can't remember the title of it--that you had
in the show at Barnsdall [Junior Art Center]
WAGNER: The ship, you mean?
SMITH: Yeah, the ship, right.
WAGNER: The Phantom Ship, the adobe house with the room in
the back with the picture of Lily Langtree, and then the
Indian fireplace, and the adobe floor, and the crucifix on
the wall, and a chair or two. Like a New Mexico house,
adobe. The whole house is that; had bullfight posters on
one corner, theater announcements on another corner. Then
you look through the door of the adobe house at one point,
and you look in, and there's a lake with all mountains and
trees completely around it. If you look for a moment, this
ship will appear, a double-ended ship, and it comes out,
and it goes back and disappears right in front of your
eyes. It's a pretty magic piece. It's called The Phantom
Ship, is the actual name of the box.
SMITH: What size are the boxes that you were doing
initially? What kind of scale were you working on?
WAGNER: At that time?
SMITH: Yeah, at that time.
WAGNER: In New Mexico?
SMITH: Yeah, in New Mexico.
WAGNER: Small, small boxes. Maybe the largest one would
be sixteen by twelve [inches] or something.
SMITH: But The Phantom Ship is larger than that.
WAGNER: Yeah, but that is not a box. The Phantom Ship.
That is actually a construction, a house. That's a
different-- Like the Devil Exorcisor and The Phantom Ship
are constructions. Like Firaskew's a construction, it is
not a box .
SMITH: Okay. So you were also beginning to do
constructions at that time, simultaneously?
WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah, at that time. The Phantom Ship was
one, and I have another one that you've probably never
seen. It's called the Zodiac Box. It moves one revolution
an hour and goes through the whole twelve signs of the
zodiac. It's in a construction similar to the Devil
Exorcisor. You're looking in and seeing a change all the
time, with the planets and the signs.
SMITH: Were a lot of your boxes and constructions at this
time mechanized, motorized?
WAGNER: Not that many, but a few, yeah.
SMITH: That's something that you've stopped doing, it
WAGNER: I'm working on one in San Pedro called The Castle
of the Graf van Rommelgem. I hope to have that finished
someday. That's Flemish. Graf means count, right?, [and]
ronimel is junk, and gem is the place. And that's what they
called me in Belgium. The Graf van Rommelgem, Count of the
SMITH: Well, at the same time you were-- It seems I've
read about very large-scale environmental things that you
were doing that were used in theatrical performances. They
sound like your constructions, but on a very, very large
scale. What were some of those that you did? The dance
WAGNER : I ' ve done two .
SMITH: Or the piece with dancers.
WAGNER: I've done two: one was in Eugene, Oregon, at the
Open Gallery, and the other one was in San Francisco, at
the Vorpal Gallery, upstairs on the top floor of that
gallery. It needs lots of space, because we actually
constructed the box about eleven by eleven by eleven.
SMITH: Feet, right?
WAGNER: Yes. With mirrors and Pepper's ghost-glass.
Pepper's ghost is something that was used in the time of
the early theater. Samuel Pepper, he invented this great
glass that could be tipped at a certain angle, and the
audience would see phantoms. I had them; fixed phantoms
and mirrors on the other side. I had dancers, mime — two
mimes , and two dancers , and two poets . And dream
readers: four women reading their dreams and dressed up in
their dreams simultaneously, bumping into each other like
the other one never existed. An audience on each side,
about 150 people on each side, so each side absolutely saw
something different from the other side as far as the box
was concerned. They changed sides at the intermission,
everybody shifted, then they saw a different expression of
the same piece. The reason I had the two poets, two
dancers- -because they switched. These read to this
audience, and these read to this, then they moved through
and they'd read the same thing over here, and back and
forth. And these mimes would work on both sides and go
right through the box.
SMITH: Couldn't the audience hear what was happening on
both sides of the box? I mean, they could hear both poets
reading, couldn't they?
WAGNER: Not really. No, they couldn't. And if they did,
it made no difference, because we had four dream readers
simultaneously reading. The box was deep enough so the
poet could do what he wanted over here, and this poet could
do what he wanted. There was no interference.
SMITH: Was the performance aspect of it, was that your
WAGNER: Yeah. The whole thing was my conception and
SMITH: Did Virginia [Copeland Wagner] do the
WAGNER: No, I did the choreography. Virginia did tai chi
sword in the piece. One side tai chi, one side tai chi
SMITH: Who were the poets?
WAGNER: The one up in Oregon, I don't think we had a title
for that piece. But the one in San Francisco, we called it
Living in Infinity. It was a little different concept,
different box, but it was basically the same. We had
wonderful musicians in Oregon that made all their own
instruments out of auto parts and junk and scraped things
on the floor. They sat in four corners of the gallery, and
we got all this wonderful music. When I got to San
Francisco, we had all these dancers from San Francisco, and
all the poets from San Francisco and from Berkeley. We had
good talent to draw from; we had the best. We had a
surrealist poet and a realist poet.
SMITH: Who were they?
WAGNER: One was Latif Harris and the other was Taddeo
Young. They're both Bay Area poets. And dancers like
Theodore Roszak's daughter, and people like that. And
Manuel Nieto, he gave a whole performance. He was at
Berkeley, Spanish, with his company.
SMITH: So you had different groups? The performers would
WAGNER: Yeah, it lasted for six weeks, each one, Saturday
and Sunday nights. We always had a full house; never,
never stopped coming, these people. Then I did it again
with a different scene in Monterey; I had nothing. I did
the same thing at Angel's Gate [Cultural Center], nothing.
SMITH: What do you mean nothing?
WAGNER: Nothing, nothing at all; just the actors and the
performers, but nothing there. Just tape on the floor. I
made a maze of tape that they could not cross the maze
lines, and that was called, in Monterey at the Pacific
Grove Art Center, it was called Loof Lirpa, which is April
Fool backwards. And at Angel's Gate, it was called The
Maze of Invisible Walls. The mimes would grope along the
walls trying to get out. Because I told the audience in
the beginning, I said, "I was down in the bottom of the
North Sea, and I was trapped, encased, within glass walls,
and there was only one way out, and I could not find that.
As I looked up, there were four depressed girls from
Finland sitting on the corners of the mirrors throwing Pet
Milk cans at each other while camels were walking on top of
the water." I gave that image, from then on they would- -
That was their confined area. They weren't all confined.
There were some-- Like the world champion skateboard artist
could do whatever he wanted to do. He was everywhere in
San Pedro. Oh, it was a wonderful performance there.
People were throwing their dreams in the air and flying
through the air. It was like a Chagall, those dream
readers. Each time I've done it, it seems to get better,
you know. I haven't done it now for five years.
SMITH: You showed me a photograph of a piece that you had
at your house in Echo Park, the piece with the chains, the
piece that appeared and disappeared.
WAGNER: Yeah, that was twenty by twenty feet, and it had
twelve elements of burned assemblage, of charred wood from
Topanga Canyon, out of fires, from fences and- -not trees,
but pieces of wood with all the charcoal on them, hanging
on conveyor chains, like a cross form. So as it turned,
these pieces from all of the sides would enter into the
center. And there was a dancer, a nude dancer, black and
white painted, and the pieces were black and white. So
when they moved in, she would dance through these pieces
until they would just almost close around her. In the
meantime, Don Preston, who was with the Mothers of
Invention, had a group called AHA, the Aesthetic Harmony
Assemblage. All his instruments were all built out of
porch swings, and springs, and chimes, and bumpers, and
gongs, and junk. His sounds were fantastic. He had a
piano with thumbtacks, and everything was about-- He was
studying then with Harry Partch; he wasn't quite up to
forty- three tones, but he was very close. He wasn't too
far away from Harry Partch. It's hard to do that on a
piano with only, what is it, twelve tones? But he really
reached out. He would feel the shapes and the dancer, and
the dancer felt the music and saw the shapes, and the whole
thing became an integrated piece of art. It was a
SMITH: This, the performance-art aspect, and the
constructions and the boxes seemed to come simultaneously
with the hippie movement. Is there a connection, or is
WAGNER: Well, at the time of the hippie movement, there
were a lot of people who wanted to do things. It wasn't
that corporate attitude. They wanted to do things pure,
not something for money, professionally cooked up. They
did it for love. They did it for the pureness of art.
That was a nice philosophy, and the young people-- There
were lots of wonderful people within that movement that I
could use as part of the actors and poets. Not all of them
were hippies; some of them had already grown through it or
were about to become. I had some younger than hippies
even, a couple of them. But it was that era.
SMITH: And you were based here in Los Angeles and in New
WAGNER: That's just one piece. Wait, now. When I got to
doing these things in Oregon and in San Francisco, that was
'77; the hippie movement was over. But there was a
transition period going on where people had been there and
wanted to continue, you see, wanted to do something. The
only people that were hard to deal with in these
performances, always, were the dancers, because they have
some narcissistic thing going within them that builds up
their egos to the point where they're very difficult to
work with. Because they're very temperamental, where the
poets are old tennis-shoe type people, you know, right off
the street. A whole different philosophy. But the
dancers, they want everything just the way they want it.
If the floor had one spot on it, they would complain; if
the window was open, they would complain--if you closed the
window, they would complain; if the lights weren't right,
they would complain, it would show up one of their eyebrows
too blue, or something. None of the other people--
Everybody else wanted it and loved it. But they were
always the prima donnas, you see. I find that's kind of
the way dancers' personalities work anyway.
SMITH: Were you in Haight-Ashbury during the '67, '68
WAGNER: No. No. I walked through it, and I still, when I
go to San Francisco, I still go over there. There are some
wonderful coffeehouses over there. I can't remember the
name; was it the Beethoven? Was that the name of it? The
Beethoven, I think, was a good one, where they used to play
SMITH: The Beethoven is in North Beach.
WAGNER: Maybe it moved. But in the old days it was
there. There was another one there that was like an open
garden inside and had a piano, and whatnot. That was
another good one. My favorite coffeehouse in San Francisco
wasn't even in Haight-Ashbury, it was the Meat Market on
Noe and Twenty- fourth [Street] next to Bud's ice cream
parlor. That was a true beat coffeehouse, with the old
furniture. I liked that one.
SMITH: Yeah. In terms of the kinds of things you were
doing at this period, were you getting much-- Was the [Los
Angeles] Times reporting on what you were doing? Were they
giving you reviews of the boxes, the assemblages?
WAGNER: Well, there was only one actual reviewer on the
Times that reviewed everything I did during that period;
that was William Wilson. He was never very favorable to me
in his most of his reviews. He always said, "Puns are
cute, kitsch, yuk, yuk, " if it was a pun, or "He's
continuing with that tap dance of death." Or one he uses a
lot with other people, I've noticed, some word I can't
remember. But it's the same. He doesn't change his
wording, he just keeps writing the same things for
everybody's reviews; it's almost identical, what he said
about my work in 1978-- He's still — or '77 — he's still
talking about-- No, earlier than that--I'm mixed up; '69,
'70 was about the last time he reviewed anything of mine.
Tintintabulate, that's the word he always used. "They're
tintintabulating. " And I've noticed he's still using these
words. No, I got reviews from others. I got good reviews
from Art International and from Art Week and from Artforum
and Art News, those magazines. But very little with the
Times, very little on that score, you know?
WAGNER: What about the L.A. [Los Angeles] Free Press?
SMITH: They gave me always some things going there. Alex
Apostolides was sort of the art editor and in charge of
things, and he gave me a whole front page once in the Free
Press. And also in Open City, which was another magazine,
or newspaper, in Los Angeles during that period.
SMITH: Did you know the people at the Free Press?
WAGNER: I knew lots of people at the Free Press over a
period of time; photographers and writers, like Liza
Williams, who I really enjoyed. They all lived in Echo
Park, practically. Art Kunkin and Susan Smoka . And the
photographer that photographed most of my things was a
wonderful photographer and lived in Echo Park. I'm trying
to remember her name. Sharon Ackerman. All of these
people were great. The Free Press wasn't anything like it
is today, it was really a fine paper. Jeanie Morgan, who
was married then, I think, to Art Kunkin. There was a
different love feeling to the paper, you know? Although it
honestly stated about social comment. It covered
SMITH: Well, did you feel it was a paper you could go talk
to the art editor whenever you wanted to?
WAGNER: I'll be actually honest with you. I've never
talked to any art editor in my life on any basis of trying
to achieve any information or have a review given. I've
never done that, never asked the newspaper to review my
exhibitions to this day, ever. I have no intention of ever
doing it. If they want to do it, they will come. That's
up to the people who give the exhibition. If they have
enough interest to give me the exhibition, I think it's up
to them to do something about the rest. Because after all,
they are charging a commission for the work, and I think
it's part of their duty. It's not up to the artist to go
around blowing his horn to get a crit.
SMITH: Did you do any pieces that were related to the
WAGNER: Yeah, a couple. I did a rocket in a glass
cylinder with some metal pieces I found in a dump in
Rocketdyne that looked like rocket pieces. Up to a
point. And I had a whole army of soldiers inside, all
trapped and encased in this penis of glass. Yeah, that was
I did one on peace in Navaho, Yiddish, Spanish,
French, English, and German within hands clasped together,
trying to pull together from all of the different races of
people, the red, the yellow, the black, the brown and the
SMITH: Was this a box or a construction?
WAGNER: This was a box. There were a few.
SMITH: Then you were involved in some things concerning
the American Indians.
WAGNER: The America Needs Indians.
SMITH: How did you get involved in that? Where did that
WAGNER: Well, there were a lot of people that I knew, like
Steve Durke and Dion Wright, Walter Chappell in North
Beach. That's where it really got going. North Beach.
Actually, the name of the group was the Love Generator and
America Needs Indians. This was to do something to help
the American Indians, who were being absolutely torn apart
by the white man at that time. When the hippie movement
came along, well, everybody wanted to be an Indian, so
naturally it brought the Indian into fame. Of course, the
hippies went to the Hopis. The hippies at the Hopi
[reservation were] running around nude, and the Hopis,
being very conservative people, never heard of such
things. They didn't have as much love for the hippies as
the hippies had for the Hopis. The Navahos didn't have
much to do with the whole thing. They went to the Plains;
they went to Rolling Thunder, up in Nevada or wherever he
is, on the border there. Rolling Thunder and a few Hopis —
TAPE NUMBER: IX, SIDE TWO
FEBRUARY 14, 1987
SMITH: Ok, you were were saying Rolling Thunder--
WAGNER: Yeah, and a few Hopis, like David Monongi , Jack
the Snake Priest, and Tom [Thomas] Banyakia, and some of
those people, they took a liking to the hippies. They saw
that the hippies were nice kids with money. It was either
going into the Hopis or going into some yogi group. They
were cashing in like mad. All of them coming over here
from India making fortunes off of the hippies. Well,
David, Thomas, and Jack, and a few of these boys, they were
the conservative party of the Hopi, but they were the most
progressive of the two clans. They knew when they had a
good thing going. So they'd go off to these love-ins, and
the Hopis would be the center of attention. They weren't
using Plains Indians, the Hopis came to love-ins. And
Rolling Thunder. I guess he was, I don't know, up in--
SMITH: Lake Pyramid?
WAGNER: Up in Nevada. What is that, Comanche or one of
SMITH: Shoshone or Washoe.
WAGNER: One of those things, Washoe Valley, around there.
[coughs; tape recorder off]
SMITH: So you were talking about, before we took a break,
about the Love Generator.
WAGNER: Well, we were talking about a particular part
there. At that time, I think we were mentioning David
Monongi and that group of Indians who were connected up
with the--knew all of these people we're talking about:
Steve Durke, who had the Lama Foundation in Lama, New
Mexico; and Dion Wright, who was the head of the
Brotherhood of Man in Laguna Beach and the Mystic Arts
World with [Timothy] Leary; and Walter Chappell, who was a
filmmaker, and a good one, who lived in Pilar, New Mexico.
And then there was Henry [Harry] Hay and John-- John, what
was his last name?
SMITH: Burnside, you mean.
WAGNER: John Burnside. They were all involved in TILL
[Committee for Traditional Indian Land and Life] , which was
another organization, the Traditional Indian Land and Life
committee, who were trying to help the Hopis and other
Indians, especially around New Mexico and Arizona. An
omnibus bill was trying to be passed that would remove the
land from the Indians and slowly take away their
reservation. They went to Washington, D.C., and they
battled this thing out in Washington. They saved that from
being passed. Henry Hay and Craig Carpenter, who was
basically with Rolling Thunder up north, the two of them
were working together. But Henry Hay lived in San Juan
pueblo, and John, and they were trying-- The last I saw of
them, they were trying-- The state of Texas was trying to
claim all of the Rio Grande, right on up through New
Mexico, all the water rights. Henry Hay was out trying to
put across to the Pueblos that live all along the Rio
Grande that they've got to do something about using that
water in some way, such as for growing rabbit brush and
things like this for their animals, so that they have to
rely on that water, a reason for using it. But the Indians
weren't using that river at all. It could have been taken
away from New Mexico, the whole water rights of the Rio
Grande. I think he fought that; that never came about.
TILL was an organization. Love Generator, America
Needs Indians; all of this came together as a group to sort
of make the Indian a hero in America, rather than a bum,
like he'd been treated for years, as a ward of the
SMITH: Were you attending the meetings?
WAGNER: Yeah, I used to go to the meetings.
SMITH: On a regular basis?
WAGNER: Yeah, just about every month. We published a
magazine even, a little book that was written, the Prophecy
of the Hopi by Chief-- What was his name? Dan Bear, you
know. Chief [Dan] K'achongva. We put that book all
together, Detta Lange and Hannes Lange, Charles Port from
Immaculate Heart College. We had the meetings at
Immaculate Heart College on Franklin [Avenue] and Western
[Avenue] in their auditorium. Lots of Indians would come,
and they would dance, and they would do all these things,
and they would bring all their culture to L.A. through
that. So it was a big thing. Everybody was buying Indian
jewelry, and everybody had to be an Indian. My aspect of
the thing was I just loved the Indians' being there, but I
wasn't romanticizing Indians through their trappings and
things. I was romanticizing Indians through my boxes and
constructions and earlier paintings, perhaps. I was a
natural for being in that group.
SMITH: Well, it doesn't sound too typical of you to be
going to political organizations' meetings.
WAGNER: Well, this was beyond the call of duty,
[laughter] I went there because I loved the Indians, and I
didn't want to see them-- The Bureau of Indian Affairs,
they were a bunch of puppets, and they were really against
the Indians. They were Indians who were against the
Indians. I thought it was-- I never really became involved
that much in any politics. But it wasn't really politics
to me, it was sort of restoring a culture and being part of
keeping this restoration from being destroyed. Instead of
tearing down a Victorian house and putting up a condo, that
same kind of flavor to the American Indian: it was a thing
of elegance, a thing of beauty, a thing of love, a thing
that we cherished from nature. And to have it destroyed
for coal and oil and junk, and taking away the land to put
up the poverty-stricken shacks to make the place look like
some tenement instead of an Indian community, I wasn't
ready to accept that kind of metamorphosis.
SMITH: How was your artwork-- Were you doing what they
call agitprop type of artwork connected with this? Were
you doing anything through your art to help the Traditional
Indian Land and Life committee or the other organizations?
WAGNER: Yeah, I made a few drawings for their magazines
and bulletins, and things of that nature, related to
protest. Hands reaching up through the mud, prayer hands
with the light above, trying to grope for the last light.
Smoke and smog and corruption, and debris in the desert,
and debris in the mountains that is being just dumped out
there in nature. A different kind of debris than good old
junk. And shooting up everything that they saw; white man
goes to the dump to shoot everything and fill it with
holes; not to collect it for a beautiful, insignificant
object, a thing of beauty, but to puncture it full of holes
with his rifle. That's all the desert is for as far as
white man is concerned, I did make one piece related to
that with an Indian holding up a whole mountain of debris
that's just destroying the landscape, and wrecked cars.
It's called America Needs Indians, or the other title is I
Think We Ought to Stop This Sort of Thing.
SMITH: That would explain why-- That piece seems unusual
in the kind of materials you used, those kinds of cheap,
plastic, like Lego kind of toys, but they're not--
WAGNER: That was actually that way when I found it in the
dump. Everything had been melted together, and it became a
wonderful piece of metamorphosis. Every kind of object in
there just fused together. I had no control over what the
dump did to that piece. I used that piece as a statement
protesting the pollution of our deserts and our mountains
and our environment with the American Indian as the last
symbol of let's not do any more, let's stop.
SMITH: Is that a time-full piece or a timeless piece?
WAGNER: Well, I think it would be time- full, but so far
it's on time. As long as we have this continuing
environmental pollution, and the way it's going now, it'll
still be timeless.
SMITH: Harry Hay in his oral history interview mentions
that the Traditional Land and Life committee was primarily
Anglos, white people.
WAGNER: That's correct, except for a few Hopis that I
mentioned, like David. They had to have some Indians.
SMITH: Yeah. Was America Needs Indians primarily white
people as well, Anglos?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I would say that
most of them were artists.
SMITH: Did you go on any protests, like to Washington or
the Federal Building, or anything like that?
WAGNER: No. I heard a story — I don't know how true it is,
but I got it from a firsthand report from David, that they
went to Washington about the omnibus bill, and they were
talking to some senator about it. The senator was denying
them everything, and David said, "Well, if you pass, if you
even think about passing this bill, your eyes are going to
be filled with spider's poison." And he [the senator]
says, "See what I mean? We have to confront these kind of
idiots, these kind of superstitious creatures who are
telling us--" And at that time the man grabbed his eyes,
"Oooh!" He couldn't see a thing.
SMITH: You don't know who they were talking to. It was a
WAGNER: I don't know which one. No, this was a story I
heard from David. But I also hear from David stories about
how they go to a certain place in Arizona once a year to
watch the flying saucers land. [laughter] Then they all
go, the whole group, to a special place to visit the flying
saucers, and they get their prophecies there. Because they
say that the Gourd of Ash will fall, and we must pray every
day to stop the Gourd of Ash from falling on the earth.
SMITH: About this time you were also involved with Yogi
Bhajan? How did you meet-- You met him in New Mexico?
WAGNER: No, I met him right here in Los Angeles at the
East-West Cultural Center. One evening I was going to a
lecture by a Sufi master, and I immediately took a dislike
to him. My wife talked to him, Virginia, he said, "I can
teach you to raise your kundalini in five days." Virginia
became fascinated by that, and she went down to his classes
at the East-West. Everybody was on the floor (there were
only four people there in his first class ) . Edith Tyberg
was the director there, a great lady. About two weeks
later Yogi Bhajan told Virginia, "Your husband couldn't
come to my class for all the money in the world." And I
sent a note back to him through Virginia saying, "I
wouldn't come to your class for all the money in the
world." This went on and on until finally we were--I was
talked into attending. We got to be friends, you know. He
treated me all right. As a matter of fact, at that moment
when I came, about two weeks later, everybody came, whole
busloads of hippies from the Hog Farm in New Mexico. There
was John Law, the actor, and Tom Law, his brother, and
Reno. A lot of actresses that were in the Smothers
Brothers Show. Goldie. All these kind of people showed
SMITH: Goldie Hawn?
WAGNER: No. What was her name? They called her Goldie.
She was one of the hippie girls on the Smothers Brothers.
The Smothers Brothers even showed up in their Rolls
Royce. What was his name. Tommy Smothers?
SMITH: Tom Smothers and Dick Smothers.
WAGNER: Anyway, they came, and we got people like
Barrymore, Jr. , John Barrymore, Jr. , who was an old
dopehead. We got Jim Baker, who ran that restaurant on
Sunset Boulevard. Jim Baker was an ex-Marine jujitsu
champion of the world. He ran a health food restaurant on
Sunset Boulevard. We had all of these people. Jules
Boucharie turned over an ashram to him behind his antique
shop on Robertson [Boulevard] and-- What's the one? I
can ' t remember the street .
SMITH: Melrose [Avenue]?
WAGNER: Melrose and Robertson, yeah, near Cyrano's down a
block or two. All of these things started going on.
Johnny Rivers, he came along, bought him a new Cadillac, a
pink Cadillac. He lived in Jules Boucharie ' s house, and he
ran his whole thing. I made him a big gong stand, and I
did a lot of-- I made him mandalas. I worked pretty hard
for him for about seven or eight months. I was going every
night to study with him.
SMITH: Kundalini yoga?
WAGNER: Yeah. And then finally he — We used to take him —
We got him classes all over the place. Everyplace, we'd
take him. He loved Mexican food. He was an airport
inspector in New Delhi. But he loved Mexican food. He was
so arrogant to people, the most arrogant man I have ever
known in my life. But he was always nice to me. He told
me once, he said, [with accent] "I think you're a more holy
man than I am, Gordon." Anyway, we used to have great
parties, lots of food, feasts with all these people. The
Hog Farm did great things to help, you know, to bring the
spirit. A whole community from New Mexico. Truches is
where they came from.
WAGNER: Truches. That's where they were, back in the
mountain, Sangre de Cristo. Then they had another group in
Embudo, wonderful girls there. They were all beautiful,
hippies. And they just loved it, they ate it up, you
see. They'd been into the Indian thing before, I mean
American Indian. They just switched over to Yogi Bhajan
like that. Yogi was strong, powerful. He'd put you
through grueling, horrible tests of strength every night.
SMITH: Like what?
WAGNER: Yoga exercises that you just couldn't imagine.
Standing on one hand, balanced on two feet, the other arm
up in the air and fire breathing for fifty breaths, and
then switch over to the other one on this hand. And up and
this way out, just like this.
SMITH: Your feet would be lifted in the air?
WAGNER: No, they'd be on the floor. You ran one arm up
and this one like this, and fire breathe, [repeats very
quick breaths] real fast to raise your kundalini. Well,
this went on and on. Finally, Virginia went on to tai
chi. I was not that interested-- He even had me teaching a
class, when he was in New Mexico, at Pitzer College. I had
to teach the class. And it was-- We just went to New York
one day, and we never-- He wanted to make me the treasurer
of the group, 3H0 it was called. Healthy, Happy, Holy.
John Law was the president, and I was going to be the
treasurer, I can't remember his name, but he was the editor
and owner of the [San Francisco] Oracle magazine.
SMITH: In San Francisco?
WAGNER: Both, here L.A. [Los Angeles] Oracle, and San
Francisco. I can't remember his name now, but he was going
to be the secretary. None of us were ever going to do
anything; it was just a name so we could have a nonprofit
organization. Yogi was-- He told me he was going to get
the benefit of everything. He had all these women around
him all the time. But we left.
SMITH: Why did you leave?
WAGNER: It was too much. And he really hurt Virginia's
back. Pulled her down on his stomach and pressed into her
spine. Tried to damage her. And he said, "It doesn't
matter where you go. I don't understand how you escape
from my net, but just remember the elephant has a very long
trunk, and no matter where you are, we'll snatch you back,"
over the telephone. Well, then he moved to New Mexico, up
to Espanola. He's been out there, I guess, all the time.
He raises some kind of special horses, and there's a whole
bunch of them there, with guns and rifles to protect
themselves against the Spanish. An interesting concept.
But he never bothered me.
SMITH: What's the interesting concept?
WAGNER: Well, the whole, this ranch and this idea of his.
He never bothered me. He bothered so many people. He
caused harm to so many people. We came out unscathed.
SMITH: So you were teaching at Pitzer for a while?
WAGNER: Yeah, I was teaching there at that time, as a
matter of fact.
SMITH: How did you get that job?
WAGNER: Carl Hertel went on a sabbatical, and he asked me
if I would take over during that time. I said only under
one condition: that I can come and go as I please and have
my class and never attend any meetings. So that was
SMITH: Had you taught at a major university before, at an
art department in a major university before?
WAGNER: Not really, no.
SMITH: Community college and community art centers.
WAGNER: Yeah, things like that, and art centers.
SMITH: Did you enjoy-- Did you find teaching at an art
school was different? Was it enjoyable to you?
WAGNER: Well, there's-- You know the people at an art
school are interested in art and are there for that,
whereas in a college they have a lot of other things on
their minds, other schedules to keep and other classes to
bring up to date on for grades and points, and all that,
you know. Art is-- If you were going to learn about art, I
would say that that would be the last place you would want
to go, Pitzer College. I mean, there are so many good
schools I think that could give you art. Of course, I had
a very good- -I had good classes going, because I was the
only one teaching what I was teaching in all of the
colleges. I was teaching assemblage and three-dimensional
construction combined with painting. And design, I had one
class in design, and the other — So that brought in
students from Pomona [College] and Scripps [College] and
Claremont [McKenna College] and Harvey Mudd [College] and
Pitzer; I had all the colleges, students from each one. I
was amazed at the beautiful work they really did, you
know. We had a wonderful time doing it.
SMITH: Many artists in Southern California, and I'm sure
everywhere, have been able to support themselves by getting
jobs, teaching jobs, at the University of California or the
state colleges. Long Beach State [California State
University, Long Beach] , Fullerton [California State
University, Fullerton] , [University of California] Santa
Barbara. Why didn't you settle into a teaching job, a
faculty teaching job?
WAGNER: Because basically, that's what you become. You
become a teacher instead of an artist. It's a trap, and
you can get caught in it. I know a lot of artists who
teach art, but they're always complaining that they have no
time for their artwork because they're so involved in their
schedules to teach. They may teach three days a week or
something, but in the meantime they're preparing for the
next four days for those three days, you know. I think it
actually takes a lot out of any serious artist who wants to
be an artist to have to take time out to teach. Plus the
fact that, not being a person of organizations like that,
meetings, and being told this and to do that and get this
done, and orders and regulations to follow, all those kind
of disciplines, I'd rather just follow my own disciplines
and work in my studio and get along the best I can and
teach in a place where you have students, but if you don't
have the students, you don't have the class sort of
feeling, like art centers and whatnot. Money-- If you want
to be an artist, I think you have to be one. I know there
are some good artists that are teachers. They wait for
their sabbatical when they can do their work. But I know
so many of them, that's all they do is teach; they never
have exhibitions, they never work, and they never get
anything done, you know. And when they do something, it's
eclectic to everybody else because they can't follow their
way long enough. Too exhausting.
SMITH: How were you supporting yourself in the late
sixties, early seventies?
WAGNER: That's barely making it in the late sixties.
Fortunately, Virginia has a wonderful ability to teach the
Alexander technique. She had private students, she would
have maybe four or five a week- -no, four or five a day,
sometimes, maybe three times a week. That paid the bills.
And I would sell something sometimes. I taught a little
bit, or I'd be asked to give a lecture. Some kind of thing
always came along; I never worried about it. But if I
think back about it, it was a good cushion with Virginia,
because she financed things pretty well for us, kept it
there. But back in those days, there was a boom in the
arts, you know. I was selling a lot of works. I was
selling boxes for $2,000, $3,000 per box. Somebody would
come along and give me $6,000 for a couple of boxes.
SMITH: [Silvan] Simone was handling your boxes or [Robert]
WAGNER: No, none-- That was In the late seventies--no, I
mean the early seventies. No.
SMITH: Who was handling your boxes?
WAGNER: At that time it was Molly Barnes and Jacqueline
Anhalt [Gallery] on La Cienega [Boulevard] . They sold a
few for me. Then I was invited to a lot of exhibitions. I
showed some works in the Orlando Gallery, they sold some
works for me, in the [San Fernando] Valley. I used to get
by, but I was never rich. I enjoyed comfortable poverty,
and we lived in Echo Park. Finally, they raised our rent
to $200 a month for this big house on two and a half acres
of land. It started at $80, and it went up slowly over a
period of nineteen years, it progressed up to $200, That
was in '78, I think, when they kicked us out. That's when
we moved . They sold the house .
SMITH: When did you go to Europe?
WAGNER: Nineteen seventy-one.
SMITH: How did that come about?
WAGNER: I was talking with Arthur Secunda, and he'd had an
exhibition in a gallery in Uppsala, Konstsalongen
Kavalletin, of assemblages. He had 104 works in the
exhibition, and he sold 108, of assemblage. So he said,
"You should have a show there. I'll write to Herbert and
see what we can do." He wrote a letter, and Herbert
SMITH: Herbert who?
WAGNER: The director, Herbert Ahlquist.
WAGNER: He was the owner. He wrote a letter back and
said, "You can have an exhibition in October of the next
year . "
And I said, "October, that's pretty good."
Arthur said, "That's perfect. It's not too dark, and
it's not too light. It's just right. You'll like it that
time of the year . "
I wrote him back and said I'd do it. So I did it. I
sent forty-two boxes there, boxes that were--they weren't
fabricated boxes, they were still assemblage and some
fetish pieces and images, and of that mandalic form.
SMITH: Things like Mexican Bus?
WAGNER: Similar to that period. Forty- two of them in a
crate, flew them over there to Stockholm. We took off, and
we went ourselves. We arrived there I think it was about
September 30, and the show was going to open on October
2. We got there and everything was fine, and I hung the
whole exhibition. They had the opening, posters all over
the town and the city, and great kiosks. It was
beautiful. A nice man. And they sold quite a few pieces
for me out of that show. The only problem, he said they
would have sold twenty times more, but the teachers were on
strike and they had no money at that time. The University
of Uppsala, which is an old university, one of the oldest
in the world, I think. That's how I started, that was my
first show in Europe.
SMITH: How long did you stay in Sweden?
WAGNER: A couple of months. Then I was Invited to have an
exhibition in the museum, in a place called Sttdertaije
[Konsthall], which is in Stockholm. But that would be the
following year, so I had no immediate plans [about] what to
do with this work. Winter was there, and I didn't know
where to put it, you know. The whole crate went out into
Herbert's storage shed. I figured, well, it's going to
freeze, you know. I don't know what happens to art when
there's no heat, no nothing, just out in the freezing
shed. I don't know if glass breaks or what. I had no
conception. So we finally-- I made lots of friends in
Sweden, some of my great friends, like Jan Thunholm, BjGrn
Evanson, Nils Stenquist. A lot, all artists.
SMITH: Was there assemblage work being done in Sweden at
WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah, there was, by Jan Thunholm, he was
one, and Jan BjOrn, he was another one.
SMITH: How did Swedish assemblage differ from California
WAGNER: Well, basically, they painted it all. They bought
wood, cut it out, sawed it, nailed it on, and stood it up
and painted the colors.
SMITH: So they were fabricated pieces, then, instead of
the found pieces.
WAGNER: Yeah. Sawed out, randomly sawed out. BjOrn
Evanson did big gates for the city of Stockholm, like pie,
you know, of bronzes and things; he used car parts and
things; he would weld them into his steel. He lived on one
of the islands right there just south of a place called--
My memory is so bad for these times. But a wonderful
place. He had a studio right on the water. There's a
community. It's right there off of the islands. The ships
went right by his house; on the Baltic, beautiful. Anyway,
after about two months we left. I studied there with an
engraver and made some etchings.
SMITH: Had you studied etching before?
WAGNER: No, no. They invited me to do some etchings. His
name was Eje Lttnn. He was a wonderful old guy. He taught
me the Rembrandt technique of etching. He was marvelous.
SMITH: How have you used the etching?
WAGNER: Oh, I just made them there. I just made a couple
of etchings, just for the feeling of it.
SMITH: Like that box there that has the line--
WAGNER: That's a drawing.
SMITH: Yeah, it has an etching feeling.
WAGNER: Well, I drew that etching on the same stock, on
SMITH: Had you done that kind of draftsmanship before,
previous to that?
WAGNER: Yeah. He was such a wonderful old man with a long
beard and a funny, old blue seaman's cap he always wore.
He would laugh, joke. He gave me that pointed long stick
right here with the dull point that looks like a piece of
bamboo. He said, "You take that back to America. You work
with that, that is part of my father's fishing pole when he
died." I liked him a lot.
When we left there we went to London, We were going
to London for a week, and we stayed for almost six
months. Then the next thing was when is the exhibition
going to be, to be sure that it was going to be held in the
museum, in SOdertSlje, and at what time. The complications
of getting it somewhere after that to a new destination.
So the only thing I could do was-- When we arrived in
London, I said, "This looks like a place for my art." I
was like Gully Jimson, you know, looking for big surfaces
to paint on. But I said, "With the British wit and the
number of art establishments and galleries and museums in
this city, there certainly must be someplace for my
work." Well, that took a while. It took a lot of walking
and learning about London, which is a marvelous city when
you know where you're going. At first we stayed in some
hotel next to where Virginia Woolf lived, Bloomsbury
Street. We just wanted to get into the flavor of the
Bloomsbury crowd, Dorothy Brett, Virginia Woolf, and all
those ladies. Then we decided that wasn't the place, so we
moved across the town to Victoria, over next to the
Waterloo--or next to the Victoria Station. That was near
the Alexander Center, where Virginia wanted to go to study
with the master, right there at Victoria Station. So we
found an old hotel over there, and they gave us a cheap
rate up on the top floor. We stayed there for about two or
three weeks. In the meantime, I'm out pounding the
pavement for the first time in my life looking to see what
I could find in the way of a gallery in London. That
wasn't so easy to find. I'd go to these galleries and
they'd say, [with British accent] "It's so wonderful, it's
charming, it's beautiful. It's a pity you're not English,
you're American." They would turn me off on that score.
This went on and on and on; I must have contacted twenty-
five, thirty galleries. But I learned about London. I
learned how to walk in London, how to get there the
shortest way, and how to take tubes, the underground. Now
I'm equally at home in London as I am here, you know, in
Southern California, where I was born. Natural-- Just a
hamlet, really, but it seems such a massive place when
you — We moved to another place where it said "room" on
George Street. I did drawings and things along the way of
all these places. Looking at drawings of some of my black
and whites, of my Under the Crown series, I was drawing all
the time. Probably we moved to another place on George
Street, which was about palatable for three days. An awful
place, just gruesome when we got inside and looked at the
rooms, the bathroom all full of water on the floor and the
windows all sagging and broken. The housekeeper, she was a
nice lady. I think she was Spanish. With her tattooed
spider on her elbow.
TAPE NUMBER: X, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 21, 1987
SMITH: Well, when we left off last week, you had come to
London in 1971 for two weeks and stayed six months. You
had mentioned afterwards that your stay in London was the
beginning of a major transformation in your work- -and your
life, I guess. Could you explain what you meant by that?
WAGNER: Well, when I arrived in London, in the railroad
station, Liverpool Street Station especially, from crossing
over from Holland and taking the train to Liverpool Street,
I walked into this station, it was so incredible, the
ironwork and the mystery of it. I'd never seen a railroad
station like that anywhere. It went way back; all the
curlicues and all of the imagery. I was sort of dazed at
the city. I had no idea where I was. I knew it was
supposed to be the largest city in the world populationwise
at that time. Apparently people had told me what a great
city it was, but I had no conception of it. When we picked
up the cab and went the wrong way on the streets, well,
then I knew I was in a different place. As I looked at the
people all around me, I realized they were from a different
place. They weren't like us at all, the British, all
different people, their faces, everything about them. And
being there as a viewer to this was quite impressive. And
also depressing. I went through all sorts of emotions at
first. I realized that the people in London are not rich;
there are lots of poor people there that live on very
little money to keep things going. But they all have that
wonderful spark of humor down inside of them and that
eccentricity, which keeps everything going very healthily.
They live almost in the past; they talk about things
that happened four hundred years ago like it happened
yesterday. They are very much interested in the royalty,
the kings and the queens and all of the-- Buckingham Palace
and all of that royal pomp is almost like a fetish to these
people. They can't give up that admiration, or that
feeling, for these royalty, who actually, really haven't
much power in the politics in the country, but they're
there. The people wait for them in parades, on the
streets, for the queen to appear in a carriage. If she
waves at them, then it's going to bring them good luck for
the whole year. There's so much of that. So looking
around London, visiting galleries and trying to get myself
going-- Taking my works from Sweden to London, somehow I
thought the people of London would really appreciate what I
was doing because they have that humor, and they have that
childlike ability to really accept it. They're sweet
people, and I thought that it was a possibility for
galleries to be interested. As I think we already
mentioned, I went from one gallery to another.
SMITH: What were you showing to these galleries? What
were you taking to show them, what did you propose to--
WAGNER: I wasn't taking anything but slides. My work was
all-- The physical work was still in Sweden.
SMITH: Right, but what works were you--
WAGNER: Boxes. Boxes. That was it. Of the period that I
had in Sweden, my older pieces.
SMITH: So they were funk boxes?
WAGNER: Yeah, funk boxes. As I say, they loved it, but it
was too bad that I was an American. "You're not British,"
they would tell me. I stayed on and looked at things and
started making a series of drawings that I call Under The
Crown, because I realized all of this royalty, all of this
elegance, and all of these heraldic symbols and chance were
all wonderful images and symbols for my work to come. It
was like empires balanced on a dice cube, or a whole empire
balanced on a knife edge with the king and the queen in
folly. There was always this chance that it was going to
fall down, like a playing card castle. Playing cards. All
these things became symbols. Dice cubes. All this
imagery. It was all like symbols of chance, the
aleatory. And I used those in drawings. I started drawing
all of these things out in my rooms where we would spend
time while we were--in the evening I would just sit and
draw until I fell asleep.
The thing that was a very amusing situation, I
remember asking so many galleries, and everyone had the
same answer, all liking my work, but always the same
answer, "Oh, you're not British." I finally was sent to
the British Arts Council to meet with Peter Byrd, who was
the head of the British Arts Council, to get some
recommendations of what he thought might happen. The way I
found him out was there was a Swedish artist by the name of
Brigit SkjOberg on Carlyle Street, who was a printmaker
from Sweden and she married Peter Byrd . She ' d recommended
me to see him, her husband. He told me that the only place
I should really go is the American embassy and meet up with
a gentleman there who is the head of the cultural affairs
by the name of Bernard Lang. So he said, "You might just
as well go to the people that represent your country, they
can help you." So I went to Grosvenor Square, to the
embassy. I called him first, made an appointment and went
there. Meeting with Bernard was an odd thing. Bernard was
an Englishman. He'd been to America once, to a space
exhibition in Florida, and that was about as far into the
United States as he'd ever ventured. He lived in Hampton
Court and knew everybody in the world, I think. He'd
organized exhibitions for Ed [Edward] Kienholz and Barnett
Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, and many of the
artists from New York, in the American embassy. They had--
the whole downstairs, when you walked in, of the American
embassy was a gallery with great paintings and small
paintings. He had it sectioned off so that it could be in
smaller galleries with a fountain in the center. That was
what he was doing, he was showing American artists, and he
was also working with actors, poets, anybody from the arts
that came to London or England. It was sort of his
responsibility to be the liaison and coordinator between
the whole thing. So my first appointment with Bernard, I
took slides and background, and he took me to his office
upstairs. He said, [with British accent] "Very well,
Gordon, You like it here in London?"
And I said, "I've only been here a short time, but I'm
finding it to be a nice place."
"Well, I'm glad you like it," he says. "We have lots
of things going, you know. " And he said, "Are you
And I said, "Yeah, I haven't had any lunch."
And he says, " Well, come along." So he took me down
into the bottom of the embassy to the cafeteria, where we
had lunch. He proceeded to tell me about the American
embassy and how all of the eccentrics almost had
disappeared from the embassy and that it was getting rather
dull. The last director went off with one year of
unanswered mail, back to America. They set him off on a
ship back to New York--or Washington. He was dictating
letters as he went to the ones he hadn't answered in one
year. We were there for two hours, talking, and he was
telling me about the Vauxhall generals and about everything
Finally, we went back to the office and he says,
"Incidentally, Gordon, what was it that you wanted to see
me about?" That was three o'clock in the afternoon. From
eleven to three. I was-- I said, "Bernard, what I really
wanted to talk to you about is an exhibition that I had up
in Sweden, in Uppsala, and it's going on to SOdertaije
[Konsthall] , Stockholm, in the museum. And I'm looking for
a place- -I thought this city would like to share with me
what I do . "
"Oh, very well," he says. "We'll make an
appointment. You come back next week, same time, same
place, and we'll go through that." So another whole week
went by not making any progress whatsoever. I looked a
little more; I walked through the whole city of London; I
know it by heart. But the more I walked through it, and
the more I looked at the art I did see, it was a
stimulating thing. In the museums I found, like the
National Galleries with all the masters, a wonderful box by
Samuel van Hoogstraten, who was an artist from Antwerp who
created an environment about three feet square and about
eighteen inches high. You looked through a hole and you
saw this man with his dog in a corridor, and you went to
the other hole and you saw a different scene, and it was
all mirrors and painted.
SMITH: Seventeenth-century artist, eighteenth century?
WAGNER: Yeah, he was at the time of Rembrandt, a
very early boxmaker.
SMITH: Had you been aware of him at all?
WAGNER: No, never heard of him. He only made five pieces
that they can account for. I was really quite stimulated
by what I was looking at there, the illusion, and painting
with the illusion. So I let it go. I went back to a few
places. I used to come out of the museums feeling like I
was oh, about an eighth of an inch high, you know, after
all-- It's good for your humility to go to museums of the
great masters. Your ego disintegrates way, way down.
Well, maybe my work's not so good, maybe I better think
about something here, perfecting this or changing this and
doing it a little differently. The other reason for that
being that I was in desperation for money at that time. I
was living on about ten to twelve pounds a week, which
would be about normal for a lot of people. That's what
schoolteachers were getting, which was equivalent at that
time to about thirty-five dollars. During that exchange,
at that moment, the pound was about $2.60. Well, I got to
thinking about these things somehow subconsciously; however
it worked out I'm not sure, but within my head were the
drawings and what I was seeing and feeling from the
masters. There was a transition going on within my head to
become more narrative in what I'm doing and sort of move
out of the fetish and the abstract. I had one gallery that
I found that was interested in my work, and he kept--
SMITH: Which gallery was that?
WAGNER: The Prudhoe Gallery, Raymond Prudhoe on Duke
Street. He made no commitments, but he was interested in
having my works. He was English, but he lived in New York
and ran a clothing store in New York, some big store. His
wife was a very rich woman from Spain who financed the
gallery. Another man who I couldn't pin down, but he
really liked my works tremendously, was a Frenchman by the
name of Jean-Pierre Lehman. He had the Archer Gallery off
of Bond Street. So those two hopes kept me dangling in
London. It kept going, and I went back to Bernard: "Oh,
wonderfully interesting, Gordon, you come again. I love
it; I love what you're doing. Maybe we can arrange
something for you." Let's see, that was in October. In
February I was still waiting for some kind of a commitment
from somewhere. Nothing was happening, and I'd been
through all these wonderful experiences of the British, and
I was drawing, and I started to make boxes myself. I made
boxes from things I found in the back alleys. For the
boxes themselves, I would go to the timber merchant and buy
my wood. And walk. Walk and walk and walk. I carried
wood on my back and glass to the glazier. I learned a
whole lot of things about the British culture from becoming
involved like this, actually living in the environment. We
moved to Golders Green, which is sort of like where the
Jewish people are of England; it's mostly all Jewish. It's
near the Hampstead Heath, so I could walk on the Heath. I
lived in the attic in the house of Kenneth Lloyd on Golders
Green Crescent. It was a circular street right off from
the tube, about a block away from the tube, so it was handy
to go to London. The next street over was Golders Green,
the whole community, so the stores were close at hand. It
was a marvelous place to live, very convenient. It was
about twenty minutes to London on the Northern Line. In
the meantime, I met up with a lady there by the name of —
At the Camden Art Center-- Anyway- -
SMITH: It'll come to you.
WAGNER: She was the director. Janice, Janice [Jackson]
was her name. Well, I liked her a lot, and she liked me.
So she invited Virginia and I to come out to her house in
Perry Green in Much Hadham. She had a thatched-roof house,
a real English thatched-roof house with walls of all the
flint stones; beautiful house. She invited Virginia and I
to come for lunch. She said, "Just go to the Liverpool
Street Station, get off at Bishop Stortford, and we'll be
there to pick you up." I thought that would be a nice
trip, so we did that. When we got over there, she had this
wonderful house. After we had this marvelous meal, she
said, "Would you like to walk on the moors?"
I said, "I've been waiting to walk on the moors all my
life." It was a dream to walk on the moors. Very
"Well," she said, "It's not exactly that kind of
moors, it's Henry Moore's; he lives across the street."
So I said, "That sounds like a good thing to do." So
we walked out, and right across from her little road on the
other side was a big barn. It was a studio filled with his
sculpture and with people working on big pieces. From
Alsace-Lorraine, I remember, one of the men; I talked to
him. Then we went on down and kept going to different
buildings where he had other things going on, cast and
stone and a lot of maquettes. We kept on walking, and down
over this rail, English turnstile gate, we stepped over the
fence down into a sort of ravine. She says, "The principal
reason for visiting here today, because there's a dump down
there, and I think you might find some good things."
Janice Jackson. Husband's name was Errol Jackson, who did
all the photography for Henry Moore, did everything for his
catalogs and-- So they were really close friends.
So we went down there and I found a lot of very good
pieces that I could use, objects and things, old things.
We came back with about four dustbags full, you know, like
plastic, like they throw--they call them the dustmen, they
don't call them the trashmen- -dustbags, plastic sack. So
we had about four almost full, and we were carrying them up
over the hill, all this equipment. Then we went into Henry
Moore's studio, where he worked personally. It was a very
small room--I wouldn't say it was more than fifteen by
sixteen feet total--with a window that looked out over his
meadow where he had all these sheep grazing. He used to
sit at the window and draw the sheep when they'd come up to
the window. That's when he did his sheep-drawing series,
all from the studio window. Then he had all these small
pieces of rock, flint, and he'd add plaster to them and tie
them. He was working things out for large pieces. But
everything-- There was nothing there bigger than probably
about eight inches by eight; it was small pieces that he
worked on first, and then they would blow those up. It was
an interesting studio. His printmaking studio was a huge,
atriumlike studio connected to his house, where he did all
of his etchings. It was a beautiful acreage; he must have
had sixty, seventy acres of land there.
So bringing the junk back to London, on the train- -
We rode in a train that time that was--the car we got into
was one of those short ones, you know, about four seats
this way and four this way and in between. A little one.
It was all right. We got back to the Liverpool Street
Station, and then transferred the junk from the Liverpool
Street Station to the Central Line, and then transferred
from the Central Line at Oxford Circus to take the Northern
Line. Walking through the tubes carrying all this junk was
an experience that I won't forget. But it was an
experience that made me feel more like I was part of that
culture. Here's all this empire, but people are like
this-- Royalty is operating the whole thing, but there's
all these people doing all these things like ants,
striving-- There's junkmen, there's junk dealers, there's
horse and wagons, there's still, on the street, men selling
cockles and whelks, and there's [people] collecting
newspapers. It's a place-- England is such a sophisticated
culture and so primitive at the same time. It's both
ways. This is the thing that really hit me at that point,
how much I loved the place because I could do all this; I
could get on the tube with fifty people, on the
underground, on the subway, and ride along with all my junk
next to some elegant lady, next to some old character in a
top hat, next to some other old man, like a wino, freezing
to death. All this conglomerate of people together. I
couldn't get away with that very much anywhere else;
England I could. Because in the first place-- Bobbies
there don't carry guns, they only say good day. It's a
whole different social system.
So I took all this stuff back to Golders Green and
hauled it up into my attic. I found things there that
started me out in the direction of found things in a
narrative way; not fabricated, found things in a narrative
way. An example of that would be that box that I had
called the Hilltown Fire Brigade, where the fire engine is
a found fire engine, the pump is a found pump of something
else, and the monkey running the pumper and the man up in
the firebox trying to put the fire out with the hose that
has no water. This was in the Angel's Gate [Cultural
Center] exhibition; it's owned by Marylyn Ginsberg.
SMITH: That was made out of what you found in England?
WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah. I found a lock this big around.
Then I built a jail, like a prison, with bars, and I had a
poor little figure behind this in this medieval door, gate,
like she was locked in the prison and couldn't get out.
The key was way down on the bottom, so she could never
reach the key for the house to get it open. She was
holding the bars. That was from my experience with the
Tower of London. I was feeling all of this world of the
SMITH: What you did in Hilltovm Fire Brigade, how do you
distinguish that from what you were doing in, say, Mexican
WAGNER: Well, the Mexican box was right along with that,
about that time. You mean the Mexican Bus?
SMITH: Mexican Bus, that's four years earlier.
WAGNER: Yeah, that's right. I was still in that period,
you see. Four years later I was still working with found
objects, narrative. Yeah.
SMITH: What about Three Faces of a Child? That's a box, a
fabricated box, that you made in the same year as Hilltown
Fire Brigade. Is that one of your earliest fabricated
WAGNER: That's a very early one, because-- What year was
SMITH: Nineteen seventy-three.
WAGNER: It was just in the beginning of changing over.
That one was-- The actual cabinet I made. The child's face
is looking in the three mirrors, and around inside-- It's a
beveled mirror, but each mirror has a different face. But
it's the same child. Going back it looks like a child, but
it's a young girl, a middle-aged girl and old lady,
gnarled. Almost looking like the British women, some of
them. They get very gnarled, the older ones.
SMITH: Did you do that in England?
WAGNER: No, but it was conceived there. I drew it up
there with the idea in my sketchbook to do it sometime.
See, some of the pieces I conceived in England, I didn't
build them until I got back to America. Many that I built
in England are in Belgium. They're still over there, I
never brought them home. About maybe twenty of them I
built in England were either sold in Belgium or are still
in a gallery there.
SMITH: I wanted to ask you about aleatory art. Had you
used playing cards or dice imagery in your work before?
WAGNER: No. No, I hadn't. I got into that through
heraldry. Looking at heraldry between Sweden and England
and Belgium and the Flemish painters. Way back to Bosch
and Brueghel, they used playing cards even. The images--
It's a nice symbol, playing cards, from the aleatory
SMITH: Had you used the I Ching previously in terms of
helping you work on your art? The I Ching.
WAGNER: Have I ever used I Ching?
SMITH: No. Did you use I Ching in terms of your artwork?
WAGNER: No. I can't say that I ever did. No, I never
used the tai chi or the hexograms in any way in my art. I
used it to figure out where I was by tossing the coins, but
I never actually used it, no.
SMITH: So you had your show at the American embassy?
WAGNER: Yes. That was interesting. I guess it was
March. I finally went back to Bernard Lang and I said,
"Bernard, what am I going to do? I have to go back to
America. Is there anything that you have--you got any
ideas what I'm going to do here?"
Well, he says, "As a matter of fact, I do. Last week,
I called up the--" someplace in Berlin, it's called the
house something. They show art. "And I'm going to give
you an exhibition with two other people together. I'm
going to give you an exhibition with Robert Bassler. Do
you know him?"
WAGNER: I said, "Yes, he ' s a Californian. "
And also a French artist who lives in America, in New
York. And he said, "I'm sure I can get him all right.
I'll have it together."
And I said, "Well, when?"
And he said, "Well, how about in May of this year?"
March, April, May. No, June, that's what it was, June.
And I said, "Well, that sounds pretty good. We should
be able to do that. I have to go home, I have to go back
to America for a little while, get some things straightened
out. We should be able to come back."
And he said to me, "How are we going to get the works
from- -where will they be?"
I said, "Well, I don't even know when my show is going
to be in Sweden. They told me it was going to be this
"Oh well, that's no problem. Give me their telephone
number. He called up the museum. That exhibition was
going to end at the end of May. So he says, "Would you
switch me over to the operator, please? Would you call the
embassy, please." They called up the American embassy in
He said, "Yes, hold the line." [another phone
conversation] "Yes, how you doing. Kit? How is everything
in Paris? I've got an artist that I'd like to have you
meet sometime. He's a good artist, and maybe you could
give him an exhibition over there. I can't talk to you
right this moment, I'm in a conversation with Stockholm."
So he's back to Stockholm again: "Would we be able to
pick up the works at the SOdertalje museum on the date that
I will send you and ship them immediately to the American
embassy so they will arrive by, let's make it by June 20?
Okay, that's it. "
Another man comes in. "Bernard, it's important. How
many tickets do you want for the Clutie show?" [laughter]
He says, "When is it? Make it four." It was a puppet
show for children, for his family.
It's all going on like that, he's talking, you know.
"Okay, Paris, put John Plompens on in Brussels. John,
I'm sending you a man over here in about six months,
Gordon Wagner. I want you to meet him. Send me on up to
Amsterdam. I want to arrange for him to have an exhibition
He's doing all this over a desk. Then he said, "One
more call I'll make." He calls up the Prudhoe Gallery, and
he said, "Mr. Prudhoe, Bernard Lang of the embassy. I'm
giving Gordon an exhibition in June, and I think it would
be quite nice if we had half of the works here and the
other half in your gallery, don't you? After all, you're
only two blocks away, and we can both have annexes."
Prudhoe says, "Of course, we'll do it."
When he did it, he did it. He didn't ask, he just did
it. It was just like that, the whole thing just solved
itself. He shipped all the works and did the whole
thing. We came back about a week before the opening, back
to London, and helped them set up the exhibition. I wanted
to be there for the installation. Bernard is such a funny
man, and he's a real pleasure to work with. I've never met
a man like him in my life. Sense of humor and joy and
knowing what he's doing. A real wonderful person.
Then we went back to Los Angeles. I didn't bring
anything with me, I was just going to show what I had in
Sweden first and see how that came out. So then we went
back again to London. While I was over here for that month
and a half, two months, Kenneth Stone of Stone Publications
was working with my Memories of the Future, finishing up
that edition that he'd started, so it was possible for me
to have some of those to return to London with. So I
SMITH: The lithograph series.
WAGNER: Yeah. I shipped off about, oh, ten sets of those.
SMITH: When had you done the drawings for Memories of the
WAGNER: In New Mexico, in Taos.
WAGNER: About 1968 or '69. In the summer when we would
stay in New Mexico for three months, when we lived there,
when we had our home there. I worked there on all of the
SMITH: And the poems were written--
WAGNER: Different times; over a period of time. From
Mexico. They were all compiled very late.
SMITH: I wanted to ask you, in terms of-- You mentioned
the feelings you felt in England in terms of the layers of
society, riding the tube and being with different types of
people; the absurdity that you were aiming at-- How is that
reflected in the work--or is it reflected in the work you
are doing now? Is Firaskew, for example, or The [Interior]
Castle of Saint Teresa [also known as The Castle of the
Seven Dwelling Places] , do they reflect that kind of
feeling that you had then?
WAGNER: Firaskew does, very much. Because I find that
real cities, like New York and London and Paris, the people
are so close together and so with each other that there is
no time for loneliness in that way. Because they don't
have to be lonely, they can get out there and be right with
the people. And they can feel. They always make some kind
of a contact with a person. If you just walk out on the
street in England, you'll make contact with somebody. The
quickest way that I know to make contact with the British
is to ask directions to somewhere. They'll go on and on,
give you a history of that whole two or three blocks where
you're going to walk and what happened there four, five
hundred years ago. So you never have to worry about
TAPE hfUMBER: X, SIDE TWO
FEBRUARY 21, 1987
WAGNER: People who think that the New Yorkers and the
British and people like that are snobbish and not friendly
are absolutely wrong. If you walk in London, the people
aren't going to say, "Hi, hi, hi, how are you?" They don't
even make eye contact with another person, they're so used
to being within the movement of the people. There is no
contact that way, but on a personal basis, when you meet
them in some situation where you like them, you know
immediately, and they like you, and you have a long-
standing friend, it's not just a flash. They go in depth,
because they have that ability of mastering the English
Even to the man on the street. I asked one day where
this building was with a stained-glass window. He was a
poor-looking old man; you'd take him here as a street
person. And I said, "I know there's a building down here
someplace, and it has this beautiful dome." And he says,
[with Cockney accent] "Yeah, right down here about a
block. Let's go, I'll show you." He takes me there. He
said, "When I listen to you, I can tell by the cut a your
tongue you ayn ' t one of our countrymen. Where you comin'
from?" He says, "You comin' from Canada? Or maybe one of
the colonies, or New Zealand, Austraylia? I know where
you're comin' from. You're comin' from Olland."
I said, "No, I'm coming from America."
"You're not comin' from America, I know that. You're
not talkin' like an American," [laughter] he tells me.
But this was just getting a direction. Now, you could
go on with that man for ten years, because he was ready to
be your friend. And it's this way.
SMITH: Firaskew, you did a drawing of Firaskew in that
period. Is that the beginning of the sculpted piece, of
WAGNER: Well, it was the first idea that I had about
making something that would relate to something. I had no
conception of what it really was. I had notes and segments
and fragments of Firaskew in sketches and sketchbooks,
notes and dreams written about it. But nothing solid.
SMITH: At that time what did Firaskew mean to you? What
WAGNER: It's only a name that comes from a dream that was
marked on a beer can or the side of a wall when I'm going
in my dreams. I'd run into this sign, "Firaskew," with an
arrow pointing. It's either through a cleavage in the
rocks or it's marked on the highway or on a dirt road. I
always find myself in this environment where the cities,
buildings, are usually out of proportion. Some of them are
very complicated, tied together with spiderwebs, total
mirrors. Sometimes they have churches with a streetcar
running down the pews or down the center aisle. The
streetcar has been, has come up a mountain where you can
never see the city, you only can see under it at all times
till it reaches the top, ascending upward. It has so
many different meanings, so many different places I've been
on my nocturnal voyages, that it's hard to-- I could build
twenty of these from the different concepts. I just took
one out of one dream. The way it sort of juxtaposed
itself, that's this one.
SMITH: Are you going to build any more of those?
WAGNER: I'm thinking about building several, probably, in
SMITH: In terms of the drawings, the Firaskew drawings
that relate to the London period, how would you compare
that with, say, the work of [Maurits] Escher?
WAGNER: Well, I don't think it would be compared to
Escher. Escher was a man who was working more in
architectural illusions, in negative and positive space to
create trompe I'oeil. My drawings had something else in
their mind than that. They weren't mechanical problems,
mathematical problems, they were actually feelings of
nonsense. They were sort of rebuses, that's what they
were. There was no place for mechanical, mathematical,
constructed drawings and paintings with that kind of
SMITH: You mentioned once that your work after this
period, you were exploring the absurd, but it wasn't a
critique. Could you explain that a little bit more? You
were showing that society was absurd, but you weren't
SMITH: That sounds like a contradiction, so could you
WAGNER: No, I believe that the absurd is very important.
And I think that not-- There are too many critics, and
there are not enough people who explore the absurd and
laugh and enjoy it. The critic just criticizes it without
enjoying it. And after all, I believe the irrational
absurdity and nonsense is one of our most important
elements in order to exist in this society. It's sort of a
counterforce against the negation of a lot of people who
are putting things down and showing the ugliness and the--
I want to show funny things, joy. Not from a critical
aspect at all; I'm not even looking at it from that. Just
being part of it. I would be one of the elements within
SMITH: Shifting a little bit, how would you compare the
stuff that you found in English dumps with the things that
you found in California dumps?
WAGNER: Wetter, greener, mossier, slimier, and hardly any
rust. Hardly any rust.
SMITH: Why was that?
WAGNER: I don't know why things get that way, but they get
kind of mossy and green. A lot of lichen gets on the junk,
because it's so damp. Damp, really damp. Everything I
found I had to take it home and dry it out for about a week
before I could use it, because it was just permeated.
SMITH: Then didn't you lose the greeness of the damp, of
WAGNER: Yeah, but then you have this wonderful blackness
that comes out. Yeah. Even the wood gets that way.
SMITH: Were the objects different, what was thrown away
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Quite a few things that I found,
Victorian pieces and junk like that. Some glasses and
figures, small figures. I got one wonderful — Two of them
I actually found, figures, one was of Ren6 Magritte, about
SMITH: A figure of Magritte?
WAGNER: Yeah, a figure.
SMITH: Of him or by him?
WAGNER: Of him. I found that one. I still have that
piece right here in the house. Another one was a burgher
woman. I put her into a box called the Theatre of the
Upside Down, where I had her on a stage in confusion
standing on an egg in the clouds. She's looking back
through endless doors, and up on the top there's the city
of Antwerp, and there's the Schelde with the barges. But
it's all upside down. You have to turn the box over to see
that it's Antwerp and the Schelde and the water. I found
those both there.
SMITH: I'd like to get into the topic of your constructed
boxes. You started making them in England?
WAGNER: I started building these things — What actually
happened was that I really took a new look, also, from the
surrealist aspect. I met a surrealist there who is
probably the best living surrealist in England at the
present time by the name of Conroy Maddox. He wrote a book
recently on [Salvador] Dali. Getting to these people and
to-- What was his name? Stephan de Villiers--
SMITH: Marcel Jean? Are you talking about Marcel Jean?
WAGNER: No, Stephan de Villiers, he was a surrealist. Max
White Joyce, who was the critic on the [International
Herald -Tribune] who really encouraged surrealism in
England, and Jean-Pierre Lehman and his friend by the name
of Jacques something, from Belgium. About, oh, fifteen to
twenty other artists that I met, we were all stimulated by
going back and really getting back into what surrealism is
all about. We really studied it, so it became sort of
our--almost a renaissance to us, rebirth within us.
Poetry, and all of them. So we really went into it
extensively. John Lyle Press, in Devon, who had all of the
original manifestoes and books, wonderful surrealist books,
one-of-a-kind editions. All of these things became part of
my head, and I realized that I would like to get a little
purer and not use the objects and the junk. Really get
into a pure form. But at that time, I was about to teach
at the Camden Art Center, and I met many, many fine people
and fine artists there. There was this whole movement, I
think. It was regenerating itself again, you know, to go
back through this, getting back into surrealism.
SMITH: In terms of your constructed boxes, looking at the
development over the last fifteen years, it strikes me that
the boxes started out much larger than you ' re now making
them. Is that a correct perception? Were your boxes in
the seventies larger than your boxes in the eighties, by
WAGNER: No, it all depended on what I wanted to develop
from that. No, I don't think the scale or dimension means
much. It wasn't a controlling factor of anything. It just
happened that way.
SMITH: Yeah. The other thing that seems to be happening
is the figures, the scale within the box gets smaller.
Like the box [Black Sun] that you have in the other room
with the woman in the mirror--! forget the name of that
box--the figure is a foot high. In Firaskew and many of
these other things, you are now using figures that are less
than an inch.
WAGNER: Yeah, I've done that on purpose. I'm trying to
take a small environment, without filling it up, and make
it seem very large with only very small things so it
seems- -it seems monumental in a very small area by doing
the scale, by reducing the scale of the objects related to
SMITH: Now, you call these constructed boxes, but many of
the elements in the box are, look like, toy figures. Are
those figures that you find in the street, or do you go and
buy them, or how are they-- Were some of them made?
WAGNER: Well, the ones that are actually made figures are
by manufacturers. I found them in different places.
Sometimes I'll find them on the street, sometimes I'll find
them in a junk store, sometimes in a cake decorating
company. If I just happen to be walking someplace; I'm
never looking for them. But I say, "Gee, those are nice.
I'll pick those up, maybe I could use them someday." You
know, I don't buy them with any specific purpose in life at
all. I'm always looking for realistic figures. Not cute
figures, not rabbits and cute, little things, not angels
and things of that nature; realistic figures that are
actually to scale of what they are. Like you won't find
any cute objects on any piece I've ever made, because I
can't stand cute art. I found these four girls the other
day on the street. Who knows what will ever happen to
them, but they were waiting for me to pick them up. They
were from somebody's party, I suppose.
SMITH: They were just on the sidewalk, in the gutter?
WAGNER: In the alley.
SMITH: In the alley. i
WAGNER: Yeah, right near the art store down there, near
the Espresso Bar. A man who has been very nice and gives
me objects and things and I trade with him--we don't trade,
I give him things that I think he likes and he'll hand me
something that he thinks I'll like--is Bruce Houston.
Bruce is always, "Hey, I'd like to give you this. Look
here! Introduce yourself," you know. "She'll talk to
you. Yes, introduce yourself." Bruce, he's a child at
heart, like it should be. He talks to all his people and
objects. So, really, the transition between the large-- I
find that if you build the environment and then put the
people in on the right scale, it really makes it more
powerful than if the person is dominating the whole
environment. It's like a giant within a house, you know?
Gnomes are much more beautiful in houses, little people,
you know, than a giant; it takes up too much space.
SMITH: Still, the titles seem to be an important part of
the overall piece. I'm wondering if the title and the
conception come to you at the same time?
WAGNER: Sometimes. Sometimes I build the piece around the
title--it's really the conception, you know. Sometimes
not. Sometimes I have to think of a title. The last piece
I built--out there--it had to do with the ship up on the
mountain and the town below, you know, to give it that
dimension of the desert mountain and the riverboat up in
the bushes, and down below the white city. Well, there was
only — I couldn't think of a title for that, but then it
came out of my dream. Just like that, it hit it. It's
called Town Ship.
SMITH: Well, that brings up the whole topic of pun boxes.
SMITH: You have done some pun boxes that go back to the
sixties. It seemed to me they were--
WAGNER: No, these are all done in the eighties, these pun
SMITH: But weren't there a couple-- Well, Circus in a
Keyhole, that's not really a pun box. No, okay, I'll take
WAGNER: Oh, I've used puns from time to time in pieces,
but the whole Pun Series was done in the eighties.
SMITH: Okay, well, let's talk about the Pun Series.
WAGNER: Oh, that's getting a little far ahead, I think,
I've got to go through-- First, I'd like to go back through
the boxes that I developed.
After my show in England, during that time, Jean-
Pierre Lehman and his friend, Jacques, said, "You've got to
go to Belgium, my friend, you are missing the boat.
England is not the place for you, it's Belgium."
And I said, "Why Belgium?"
"Well," they said, "you've got to go there for several
reasons: The people in Belgium will really love what you
are doing. And not only will they love what you are doing,
but you told us one time that you had an uncle named Jean-
Frangois Millet, a great uncle, and you know, he was
Flemish, and you should go and find out about all these
So we did just that. Virginia and I went to Bruges
from London, took the train, while we were having my
exhibition. From Bruges we went on to Gent and stopped in
Gent. I was told by Jan Thunholm in Sweden to check out
about three or four galleries in Gent, because- -and also
Arthur Secunda said it was a good place. So I went to
Arthur's first gallery. I'd already sent that man pictures
years ago, and I'd forgotten about it. So I went to see
him. "Oh yeah, I know you. I've got your pictures in my
desk. When do you want to have an exhibition?"
I said, "Well, I have things in England now, in
London . "
"Well, I couldn't give the exhibition before five
years, I'm tied up. Go see my friend [Raoul van der
Veecken] down around the corner, [Galerij] Kaleidoscoop,
he'll probably help you."
I went there; he looked at them, he says, "When do you
want the show?" And I went to two other galleries in Gent;
they said, "Yeah, when would you like to have a show?" So
I finally had to make a choice between the three.
I went to Brussels and found three galleries there,
the same thing. The three I went to all wanted to give me
a show. And I said, "Well, I have a show in London. I
want to have a show here in Gent and then Brussels, then
I'd like to work it out so I have one in Amsterdam."
So they said, "You come back."
In the meantime, a lady in Brussels, Madame Beele of
[Galerie] 1 ' Angle-Aigu, she said, "Bring some works back
with you very soon, I'd like to show them in my gallery and
keep them here. I have people coming all the time." About
that time Joan Shors, who's a critic for the American
newspaper in Brussels, walked in and said, "They'll love
your work. They only think of one thing in Belgium:
surrealism. Everybody's going to love your work." That
encouraged me .
I went back to England, I told Bernard Lang what I had
arranged, and he said, "Don't forget to see my friend John
Plompens, he'll help you. Anything you want done. He's at
the American embassy in Brussels. He'll take care of
everything for you." So that was going to happen in, let's
see, February, March.
SMITH: What year are we talking about?
WAGNER: ' Seventy- four . That's when it was going to
happen. From London we went back home, and we stayed there
until February. So I had a show lined up at Kaleidoscoop
for February, March; March it was. March 4, I think,
yeah. Then it went to Brussels in April, and it went to
Amsterdam in June. So I had real — I had it all
scheduled. In Amsterdam, I had it in the American library
[Nederland Amerika Instituut] , the first show. Then from
there I was asked to have another show in Amsterdam in the
Israel Galeri j , where they called me the American Jew.
WAGNER: They thought I was, that's all. The critic,
naturally, being the Israel Galeri j , [thought] I must be an
SMITH: I see, Wagner.
WAGNER: The name Wagner could be. The Dagblatt,
SMITH: Did you sell well in Europe?
WAGNER: Yeah, very.
SMITH: Better than in the United States?
WAGNER: Well, when you take it as an exhibition, yes; from
an exhibition standpoint, yes. A one-man show, yeah.
SMITH: What about the criticism?
WAGNER: Excellent criticism, wonderful critics. The
French critics and the Flemish critics, they have a
wonderful quality about the way they write; they're not
destructive or self -oriented. They get into-- They really
are observers rather than-- They really live within your
SMITH: When did you begin to introduce trompe I'oeil into
WAGNER: About '74, right after I came back from Belgium.
SMITH: What kind of things were you doing, what kind of
tricks were you trying to play?
WAGNER: A lot of boxes with mirrors and trick angles. I
used a lot of rational symbols like checkerboards and
architecture of-- A feeling like it was a game. And not
putting anything on these rational formats that had
anything to do with anything but nonsense, the irrational.
SMITH: How does The Phantom fit into this period?
WAGNER: Now, The Phantom you're talking about is the
shadow coming out on the floor without anybody in the
door. It fits into the period very well, because it was
done about that time, '74, '75.
SMITH: 'Seventy- five.
WAGNER: It was the beginning of using these phantom
objects in the glass, like illusions of glass and putting
the ghost forms behind them. At that time I was doing that
with mirrors. I was also creating physical impossibilities
like The Bowler bowling through the wall. There's a brick
wall dividing the box with the bowler. He's bowling, but
his shadow goes under the wall, but he can't get through
himself. On the floor, the shadow goes through. And then
the one of the shadow that fell down. The floor tipped up,
and it had boards on one side and the dark figure of the
man is on the other. But the shadow fell down on the
stairs and is in three dimensions going up and fragmented
as a person, the shadow. It's called The Shadow of a
Doubt. These are all in collections of shadow pieces.
SMITH: What about Separate Reflections?
WAGNER: That one is-- It's in a building where a
businessman is all dressed up in his necktie and his suit,
off for work, but on the other side in the room there's a
mirror, and he was such a disgusting person that his
reflection stayed home in the mirror.
SMITH: In terms of the mirror tricks, did that involve a
lot of experimentation in order to get-- Let me rephrase
that question. Did the concept for the effect come first,
or did you have to play with your materials and see things
WAGNER: Well, not really, because I can draw these things
out pretty well, the angles where mirrors are, and the
like. I build all my boxes-- I draw them all first to
scale; everything, every detail is to scale, like in
building a house. So I know the angles and can develop all
that on a piece of paper so that when it goes together,
there it is; I don't make mistakes and spend a lot of money
and a lot of time going back and trying to figure out what
happened. Because it's usually all drawn out before I ever
touch a piece of wood or a mirror or anything else; I know
exactly how it's going to fit.
SMITH: What does mirror imagery signify to you? Why was
it so particularly appealing to you?
WAGNER: Well, it's always been fascinating. Mirrors have
always been fascinating to everybody, I think, because
people spend a lot of time in front of mirrors. Actually,
the only real thing is the mirror; everything it reflects
is unreal. Mirrors, to me-- Magicians use mirrors; mirrors
were signs of elegance in castles and coffeehouses and
buildings; mirrors change dimensions of things; mirrors
create illusions of things that don't exist; they create
illusions of things that do exist but are not there. They
do all sorts of things that fascinate me. The more I can
adapt the mirror to doing something-- There's just not that
many ways you can-- After a while you run out of things to
do with mirrors. You can send things to infinity; you can
move rooms; you can transfer people from one place to
another; you can go through mazes and labyrinths. But
actually, after a while you can't keep doing the same thing
over and over again, you know.
SMITH: But you use--almost all of those techniques are in
WAGNER: Well, this was kind of a compilation of using all
the things that I had previously done with images. In some
way or other, I could adapt them into this, into Firaskew.
SMITH: So how long did you work with mirrors as a major
theme in your work?
WAGNER: Actually, I used mirrors a little, not in the
sense of the mirror as I used it in--I would have a mirror
in a piece, you know, but to perform magic tricks in front
of your eyes, about '74, '75 I started using mirrors, I'd
At the same time, I started fabricating my materials
rather than-- Because being in Belgium-- You can't find
anything in Belgium. There's nothing to find. It's such a
clean country, it's just spotless. They don't throw things
away in Belgium; there's no trash. So you are forced to
make things, and so that's where I started, actually, in
'73, when I worked there. And I was making new pieces. I
had to make new pieces; I had to show-- The exact amount of
pieces that came into the country had to leave the
country. After all, I sold over half of the works in
Belgium. I had to replace those to get my works out of
Belgium or I'd have to pay a super heavy duty. They let me
come in with my works for three months to have my shows,
and then out the other side. But nothing was to be sold.
I had to get it all--I had to replace everything.
But they'd never seen any of the things, they just
knew it was art in boxes. So when I went to the border, I
had the same: just art in boxes. The guy said, "Well, let
me see what you do." So I had to undo the whole crate, and
he counted them. I had matchboxes, and I had tiny little
boxes like this; anything to say it's a box. "And what do
you value these pieces?" I said, "Five dollars apiece,
that's what I came in with."
I sold about twenty in Gent and five in Brussels, out
of about thirty- five. So I was busy making things the
whole time I was living in Gent, which was probably about,
at that time, three months that I could stay there. I had
to start right away. I had a $17-a-month studio up on the
roof and a place to work. I was working night and day to
get these-- Virginia was here and I was there. She didn't
come over until Easter, so I had lots of time to work.
SMITH: One of the things I wanted to ask you about your
stay in Sweden, England and Belgium, perhaps Belgium and
England in particular, was, were you attracted to the
symbols of medieval Christianity? Did that begin to
interest you at that time?
WAGNER: Belgium, no; Sweden, no; England, yes. Some of
the artifacts, like censers of that time, that were in the
British Museum, some of that medieval art of that time was
incredible. Patinas and censers for the incense burners
for the castles, and the playing cards, you know. They had
playing cards cut out for the smoke to come through, for
the censers, you know?
WAGNER: All of that sort of thing fascinated me. I did
drawings of them, as a matter of fact. I've got them in my
Under the Crown series, a couple of them, where the king is
balanced on his censer puffing the smoke from underneath,
from a chimney pot. He's just floating up there, he could
collapse at any moment.
SMITH: So in terms of your religious development, your
stay in Europe did not draw--it was not an aspect of
drawing you back to Catholicism, or drawing you into
WAGNER: I was never drawn back to Catholicism because I
wasn't a Catholic in the first place. I never was, so I
couldn't be drawn back. But I appreciated going to the
Catholic church, because everybody goes to Catholic church
in Europe, because that's where all the art is. Incredible
art in the churches. Like in Gent: one of the greatest
paintings in the world is in the Saint Bavo ' s Cathedral,
the [Adoration] of the Mystic Lamb [by Hubert and Jan van
Eyck] . So many great paintings. Antwerp has some great
paintings in there. They've got one of Michelangelo and
one of da Vinci and all the Rubens; some of his most
important paintings are in the cathedral at Antwerp. So
there's a feeling that gets you off the street to go into
the cathedrals. You feel like you're protected there. I
was fascinated by some of the things. I used to go into
the church at mass and sit in the back row. Just sit
there, meditate. Like a yogi or something. But I felt a
lot, and I cried; I used to cry in churches in Europe. It
was like a purging of my inner self from the feelings of
the music, the great music of Bach and-- They had the
greatest concerts of all of them in the Saint Bavo's
Cathedral. That's where Bach did his first Saint Matthew's
Passion. The first place he ever did it was in Gent, in
Saint Bavo's Cathedral, the preview; he conducted. That
kind of feeling, it's-- Naturally, there's a certain
feeling of the spiritual. It's all so cleansing. But as
far as being brought back to the church, that had nothing
to do with it whatsoever because I never was in the church
in the beginning. My wife, my first wife, was a Catholic,
and my children went to church and were baptized, but I
wasn't. I thought I was part of it. I thought they'd
given me some papers that would make me that way, but I
never followed it.
SMITH: I'd like to talk a little bit about Russian Hill
WAGNER: That's an interesting piece that relates sort of
to the same as The Phantom and Georgette and Separate
[Reflections] , taking people and putting them into sort of
impossible positions. I was always fascinated by a window
next to my house there, the kitchen window. In San
Francisco, you look out of your kitchen window and often
you'll see somebody else's staircase running down the side
of it. This particular one, the staircase was running down
and around until you saw the underside of the stairs. And
I used to visualize somebody actually walking horizontally
up the underside of those stairs. It was a nice impossible
situation. What I was trying to get was "impossibility" in
my art. Impossibility, as Laszlo Logosi, I believe, quoted
one time, "Impossibility is the operative mode of art,"
when he did the film Szirkus, the Ferenc Karinthy story.
TAPE NUMBER: XI, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 28, 1987
SMITH: We left off last time with your coming to
Belgium. You had a show in Gent, three shows going at more
or less the same time in Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam. How
long did you stay in Belgium?
WAGNER: That time I stayed about-- Well, first I was in
Belgium for about two months, and then I went off for a
little trip to Madrid. Then I came back to Belgium; I had
my studio there. Then I went up to Amsterdam, up to that,
and stayed in Amsterdam for two months. Then I came back
to Belgium again, and I was there for another three months.
Put it all together, and it makes about seven months, I
SMITH: Did you go back to Belgium later?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah.
SMITH: Have you continued to-- Through the seventies?
WAGNER: In '79 I went back again. When I left Belgium I
came back home to Silver Lake.
SMITH: Where were you showing in Belgium? Who were your
WAGNER: My first gallery show was in Gent, and my gallery
dealer was Raoul van der Veecken. He had the Galerij
Kaleidoscoop. Wonderful art dealer, wonderful man. A real
joy to be with him and his family. I don't think I've ever
laughed so much in my whole life as I did with that man.
He had a tremendous wit and sense of humor. We both were
in complete rapport with one another. It was interesting,
because at the exhibition he told me that everybody liked
my work. Gallery openings in Belgium are usually on Sunday
morning from ten to one, and everyone comes, all the
families, children by the tons, everybody comes. They go
to all of the galleries within the city on that morning,
all the openings. They call them vemlssages, or
■tentoonstellingen in Dutch, which means opening. You meet
some of the most amazing people at these openings. You try
to communicate with them in some way by learning their
language a little bit, trying. They can speak enough
English, so between the two of us, we get along just fine.
At the end of the show, at the end of the opening, I
said, "Well, how did it do, Raoul?"
He said, "Well," he says, "that piece over there is
the only one I see that we're not going to sell."
SMITH: Which piece was that?
WAGNER: "Because I'm buying that for myself," he says.
SMITH: Oh, I see. These are all constructed boxes?
WAGNER: They were all boxes.
SMITH: Not funk boxes, but constructed boxes.
WAGNER: No, they were funk boxes. They were within the
old context of found objects from England and some from
Sweden, and different things. Plus the ones that I had in
Sweden. I had a pretty good collection then, close to
fifty pieces, you know, that I could-- We actually showed
about thirty, so I still had some left over for Brussels.
But it was an amazing exhibition and an amazing turnout.
It's a university city, Gent, a very old university.
Professors were there, the heads of the music department,
all sorts of interesting people live in Gent. It has a
population of 500,000 people. It's a very old city. In
fact, it was the second largest city in northern Europe
next to Paris.
SMITH: At one time.
WAGNER: At one time, yeah. So the whole place, it feels
right to me. I still love to go there, and I just kiss the
street like I was back home.
SMITH: But you had mentioned once--this was a long time
ago when we first met--going to Belgium was in some ways
like returning home, home to the world of the piers. Could
you explain that a little bit more?
WAGNER: Yeah. When I went there the first time from
London, when I arrived in Oostende on the boat, it was all
of a sudden some feeling that I was home, that I'd been
there before in some other time or period in my life. I
was really home, and I knew it; I could feel it. There was
no way to explain it, but-- There was a warmth. And the
architecture, the beauty-- Most people don't even like
Belgium. They never advertise it in the tourist guides.
Nobody goes to Belgium. It's wonderful, because the
Belgians discourage advertising Belgium; thej want to keep
it the way it is. Belgium is so full of great art; some of
the greatest, the Flemish. The cities are so--they're not
spoiled, no high rise, no junk, no Bauhaus-type of high
rises in the city.
SMITH: Some in Brussels, but--
WAGNER: No, I'm talking about Gent.
SMITH: Oh, Gent, yeah.
WAGNER: They've kept it the way it is, the old buildings,
the old way. Bruges is the same way; you wouldn't see
anything like that in Bruges. The countryside going there
was like when my great-uncle, Jean-Frangois Millet, painted
the landscapes and the feeling of the peasants, of the
gleaners in the Angelus. Probably the reason I like
Belgium-- I can't understand it. My mother was from Paris,
and my father was from Amsterdam, so maybe I'm supposed to
be in between in Belgium. [laughter]
SMITH: Well, that's a possibility, yeah.
WAGNER: The more I was in Belgium, the more I realized
that people there are like people from fantasy, fairyland
people. Their whole makeup is surreal, the way they are.
the way they think. That's why I think that surrealism was
very strong in Belgium. More painters came from Belgium
that were surrealist than probably any other country,
because they were actually influenced by the Salon 20,
which was the group of the Dreamers of Decadence, you know,
Jan Toorop and G. [Georges-Antoine] Rochegrosse and Fernand
Khnopff. They were all Belgians, all those symbolists
before surrealism, and they belonged to the Rosicrucian,
rose cross. So with that energy within the country-- You
can't explain what it is, but it's in the air. It's the
light of Bosch, it's the light of Brueghel in the
atmosphere, the clear, steel-blue light. There's no light
like it anyplace; it's a painter's light. All of those
elements make up some sort of an alchemical solution that
made me realize, well, I was home again.
SMITH: I wanted today to talk about surrealism and your
relationship to surrealism. In our last session, you
mentioned that you had embarked, at this period of your
life, on an intensive study of surrealism. How did that
WAGNER: Well, it really, actually, started in Belgium,
where I really wanted to go into it. I started reading all
of the manifestoes everything on [Andre] Breton, everything
on [Paul] Eluard, everything on [Robert] Desnos; and
realizing [Rene] Magritte was a Belgian, Paul Delvaux was a
Belgian, Le6n Spillieart and a lot of younger ones.
Surrealism was strong, and when I would talk to these young
men from the academy, I found that that would just about be
the only art interest they had.
SMITH: Which academy are you talking about?
WAGNER: In Gent, the painting academy of Gent, which is an
excellent academy. In Antwerp I had the same reaction to
the gallery that handled my work in Antwerp, the Galerij Te
Zwarte [Panter] . Adrian van Raemdonck was the owner, and
he was only interested in showing surrealism. Belgian
surrealism was stronger at that time than at any other time
in the history of art. Well, I was very influenced by it,
and I started to think that-- I had realized these people
existed, but being from the funk school, and whatnot, we
were still doing dada surrealism and California funk. We
were influenced by it indirectly.
SMITH: Did you know you were doing it when you did it?
WAGNER: I wasn't that much interested in what school it
was; it was just the California funk school. When I
started looking at the objects of Breton and [Joan] Mir6
and a lot of the assemblages of these early surrealists, I
realized they pretty much had been into that. Also, I
realized that the daddy of them all was probably Marcel
Duchamp, who was into the object.
SMITH: Did you realize this, say, in connection with the
Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum?
WAGNER: I knew there was a parallel, definitely. The same
with Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena Art Museum and Ren6
Magritte at the Pasadena Art Museum. I knew there was a
parallel, and I knew that we were in simpatico. If I would
have met them, we would have been able to be good friends,
because we were all in the airwaves, you know.
SMITH: Were you studying surrealism by yourself or was it
with other artists, other poets?
WAGNER: By reading and by being with artists who had that
sort of tendency. I think it just evolved automatically.
SMITH: Were there California artists who shared this
interest with you? Any names in particular?
WAGNER: Well, at that particular time there were quite a
few artists that were doing parallel things, like [Edward]
Kienholz and Artie Richer and Tony Berlant, Charles
SMITH: We're talking sixties now, fifties, sixties. But
you were not studying surrealism at this time yet?
WAGNER: No, I was making art, not worried at all about any
WAGNER: Just making art.
SMITH: But you began to study surrealism in the mid-
seventies when you went to Belgium?
WAGNER: When I felt there was a movement. I realized at
that moment that surrealism to me was beyond dada and
funk. So that's when my change actually came, was in
Belgium. It evolved into the more narrative, like with the
figure and telling something of the humor, the wit; not
just found objects, but starting to fabricate the
objects. It was at that time I knew I had to go beyond
funk, I had to step over the boundries. By reading all of
these people here, from Max Ernst to Breton to Delvaux to
Duchamp, I collected every bit of fragment. I still do;
anything that has to do with surrealism is either filed in
my cigar boxes of small drawings or small postcards into my
bookcases, all surrealism. I'm still a surrealist fanatic,
because there ' s never going to be a death of surrealism
because it was never born.
SMITH: Well, at the time you were studying surrealism in
the seventies, were there other artists with whom you were
WAGNER: Oh sure. In Belgium there were many. Like Lucien
Cornells was one of my best friends in Belgium. Then there
was Arnold Verhe and there was Camille Dav6, who was one of
the best surrealists in Belgium. He died recently. And
Pierre Roobjee, who was a poet. All of these men were very
much in simpatico with me. They would come and invite me
to their projects. Lionel Vinche. They all did surrealist
objects and combined painting and sculpture. They were all
in the museums in Belgium. A wonderful group of people.
We talked about it all the time in the coffeehouses. I
would go into the coffeehouse, and they would say to me,
"Goeden avond, Graf," which means good evening. Count.
Because that was my name; they named me that, the Count of
Rommelgem, the junk place, so the Graf van Rommelgem, who
was actually a cartoon character in Belgium by a very
wonderful artist who did this sort of thing. I even looked
like him. The Count of the Junk Place, that was my name.
I would come into the bar, and we would immediately get
into surrealism. We would talk about [Stfephane] Mallarm6,
about Benjamin Peret or Tristan Tzara. We'd have arguments
about surrealism, about where it's going and what it means,
and really get into it. And I say, I would ask, "Would you
ever be anything but a surrealist?" They said, "What else
is there?" Then they would always have something for me,
these artists. There was an artists' bar; it was called
SMITH: This was in Gent?
WAGNER: Yeah. It was called the Gallows. It was at one
time the gallows hanging place for the castle of Gent,
right on the square, and it turned into a coffeehouse, an
artists' bar. They would always have something for me.
They'd reach in their pockets, "Hey, Graf," and they'd hand
me an object. They'd collect things for me. The children
would--little kids, four and five years old, "Gordon,
Gordon," and then they'd hand me something, a toy or
something they didn't want anymore, they'd give it to me.
I've never been treated anyplace in my life like I was
treated in Belgium. Probably the fact I was from
California, American, and they had expressed an interest in
finding out about these things from me.
SMITH: Let me ask you — We'll get back to the subject of
surrealism in a little bit. In Sweden, England, Belgium,
was there a high interest in what was happening in American
art at the time?
WAGNER: I didn't feel there was much interest at all in
Belgium. In London there was a bit, but not much, because
the British still love Romney and Reynolds and
Gainsborough, you know, for their Victorian houses.
There's very little interest in contemporary art in
SMITH: What about Sweden?
WAGNER: Oh, they love contemporary art. The Swedes are
good artists themselves. All these people have such--
They have great artists, you know. When you have somebody
like Walter [Hopps], who controls the world of the arts, he
sees to it that [Claes] Oldenburg and all of these people
are in the right places in all the museums.
SMITH: So pop art was very popular?
WAGNER: Yes, pop art in England. It wasn't popular at all
in Belgium. Even abstract expressionism-- They had a very
difficult time accepting the abstract expressionists of
American artists. Because they had their own artists; they
felt that [Willem] de Kooning was Dutch, Cornells [Van
Beverloo, also known as Corneille] was Dutch, [Karel] Appel
was Dutch. It was called the Cobra movement, and that was
enough for them; they didn't need an extension from that.
SMITH: Was there an interest in color-field painting? In
the manifestations of perceptual art?
WAGNER: Not too much, no. There were environments and
installations by [Pol] Bury and [Vic] Gentille. They were
SMITH: Dutch or Belgian?
WAGNER: Belgian. All of them were-- Cornells, of course,
was Belgian. Appel lived right on the Flemish border.
They had a feeling for [Maurits] Escher, who was from
Antwerp. Basically, they-- There weren't very many
American artists showing in Belgium at any time. I was one
of the few, because I went there personally and represented
myself. But most American artists wouldn't even think
about going to Belgium; they'd go to Paris, or they'd go to
London. The last place they would go would be Belgium.
"What's there," you know? It's still that way. They say.
"What's in Belgium? Dull country, dull people," you
know. It's not true. They're a very alive people, and
very warm and friendly and giving. I don't think there was
hardly a night in the whole time I was in Belgium that I
didn't have a good meal in somebody's home, because when
you had an exhibition, everybody wanted to invite you to
their house for dinner. We had all this great, gourmet
food that was presented to you. It was wonderful. And
every Wednesday night I went to the prime minister's house.
SMITH: The prime minister now?
WAGNER: Well, he's not prime minister now, he was. E>e
Scrijver, Auguste de Scrijver. He was the prime minister
of Belgium. I used to go to his house every Wednesday
night. His son, Leo, admired my work and myself. He was a
real Proustian-type man.
SMITH: What do you mean by that?
WAGNER: Well, he lived in a Proustian world. He lived in
this mansion; he lived way up in the corner all by
himself. He had a couch where he could listen to Bach and
Beethoven and Bart6k; he loved Bartok. All these objects
in the room, and cabinets full of things like crocodile
nutcrackers and ship models and little objects. His
bathroom door was completely, solidly located with every
print that he could possibly get on there, small prints he
had collected. Twenty of the prints were James Ensors. He
was a great fan of James Ensor, who was from Oostende. You
see, another great artist from Belgium.
SMITH: Now, you mentioned that there was a strong interest
in California when you were there. What was the image of
California that these people had?
WAGNER: Well, actually I think the image — I talked to
some people who had been there, and they didn't consider
anything in California really attractive, except San
Francisco, and they felt that was the jewel of the United
States. As for the rest of it: it was too spread out,
there was no transportation; they couldn't get around,
there were no rails like in Europe, where you can go from
one town to another, anywhere. It was very difficult for
them to get about, except a few. The other thing that a
lot of them asked, "Is Los Angeles in Disneyland?" They
thought that Disneyland was bigger than Los Angeles,
[laughter] They'd never been here, but they wanted to know
about these things. They'd heard of Disneyland, and they
wanted to see that. That was the most important thing,
because they heard there was a lot of magic in Disneyland.
Like they knew all about the pirates, and they knew all
about the haunted house and all the illusions, and they
wanted to see that.
They didn't think too much of a lot of the young girls
in California that came to visit in Belgium. They acted
very silly, they said; they didn't seem to be mature
people, you know. The European girls in Belgium are very
beautiful; some of the most beautiful women I've ever seen
live in Belgium. Because they have this Flemish face which
is almost something out of a [Hans] Memling of that time.
Pure and real; there's no fagades. So they asked about
that, about "Are all women like the ones that come here or
are there others?" Or, "Do they talk with a [speaks with
heavy drawl] 'Well, I'll tell you now, it's like this,'
like the Western accents, like movies? Are they like the
Most of them watch American films because they can
learn English from that. That's the way they find it, in
their TV, to watch English-speaking films. That's the way
they learn their language, a lot of them, and go to school.
They're forced to study four languages in school. They
have to study Dutch, French, English, and any other
language of their choice, from Spanish to Russian to
Chinese to Greek or whatever. And that starts when they're
five years old, they're already studying four languages.
They're wonderful. And so warm. So me, being an American,
which there are not very many American artists coming
there, I was sort of--I don't know what; you might call me
some sort of a freak, coming to their country to have an
exhibition. But Arthur Secunda had an exhibition in
Belgium and did well. He loves Belgium. All of Arthur's
friends and my friends, we're all together, we know each
other. Beautiful people to deal with, because they want to
help you all the time. They're so concerned about you, be
sure that you're all right and find you your studio that
you want to work in. It was really an experience,
SMITH: Since the mid-seventies, a number of critics who
have written about your work have compared it to the
Belgian artists Delvaux, Magritte. There was obviously a
great change in what you were doing in terms of the
boxes. Do you feel that your work is Magritte-like?
WAGNER: Well, I really admire Magritte. I think he was
one of the great surrealists. I love his humor. The
actual context of his work is basically his own house or
windows that he looks through and objects juxtaposed within
his house in a surreal manner to create a whole different
ambiance. I don't think Magritte ever worked too much from
dreams and therefore- -
SMITH: Well, he said he wasn't interested in dreams.
WAGNER: I do, so I think I probably parallel Magritte
sometimes architecturally, arches and interiors, but what I
say, I think, is a whole different approach to it than
SMITH: Well, in terms of the general subject of surrealism
and your placement within surrealism as a continuing art
movement, generally, eroticism and sexuality are considered
to be really prominent aspects of surrealist art. I'd like
you to talk a little bit about the sexual, the erotic
aspects of your art, how they manifest themselves.
WAGNER: Actually, in Belgium and Holland there's a whole
movement of erotic and sexual art by academic painters that
really make it look like it's really happening right in
front of your eyes. They're really great painters.
Especially in Holland more than Belgium. But I've seen
paintings ten, fifteen feet long and three feet high, you
just can't believe what you're looking at. Really
eroticism, pure pornography.
SMITH: Well, I was thinking more about the Magritte
painting where the dress is hanging on the hanger with the
breasts coming out and the shoes with the toes coming out,
or the [Alberto] Giacometti with the ball and bananalike
WAGNER: Well, at one time--
SMITH: The more ambiguous and evocative kind of eroticism.
WAGNER: At one time I did quite a few erotic pieces. That
was back a ways, in the sixties. I mean deliberately
SMITH What pieces were they?
WAGNER: Oh, I went through a whole series of pieces
related to eroticism that you-- I don't have them.
SMITH: Yeah, but could you describe them, give me some of
WAGNER: Oh, they were penises and breasts and lace.
SMITH: Evocative penises and breasts, or explicit?
WAGNER: Yeah, yeah. Lace and jewelry; very, very
SMITH: But were these expliclt--
SMITH: --or were they evocative?
WAGNER: They were evocative. Sometimes they'd become a
little more than evocative.
SMITH: What were some of the — Can you remember some of
WAGNER: Majestic Memories was about a dancer, a woman who
was wound up in webs and nets with all of these erotic
things happening, and perfume bottles and beads and glass
and phalluses. It was from a-- And a boa hat. It's in a
collection at the moment; it belongs to Ronald Loeb. The
reason I call it Majestic Memories was because most of
these things came from this woman who was a dancer and
entertainer in the Majestic Theatre in downtown Los
SMITH: These are actual things that belonged to this
WAGNER: Yeah, a lot of her goods, and a lot of things.
But I really twisted it around to make it quite sensual.
SMITH: How big was this box?
WAGNER: Oh, about [gestures] that large, eighteen inches
by eighteen inches by four inches deep. It was a good
piece. I had to repair it one time because his wife hit
him over the head with it, [laughter] so we had to
reconstruct it. His ex-wife, that is. But I did some with
bottles, and things happening with them. I did things with
different acts of sex going on.
SMITH: Explicit or evocative?
WAGNER: Expressing it, but it wasn't actually that, it was
evocative. You knew it was there, but it wasn't.
SMITH: Dream images again?
WAGNER: No. This was at a time when I was not married to
anyone. I think it was a lot of libido drive coming up
that created it, because I was in a state of, sort of a
demonic state of my love object [at the] time. I mention
that in my book. Memories of the Future. I have a couple
of drawings in there that are pretty erotic.
SMITH: Which ones would you say?
WAGNER: Well, one is the girl on the cross, and the other
one is the one where she's sitting with your back to her in
the vagina, you know? At that period it was love objects I
was creating, because it was a sort of sublimation for
being without sex.
SMITH: There is sort of an equation of vagina,
rollercoaster , death in that series.
WAGNER: Exactly. That's what it was all about,
basically. There were quite a few symbols like that
throughout. And also, my boxes were of that same imagery
at that time. William Wilson made a comment on it. What
did he call them? Quite decadent, or something. I was
having an exhibition of them at the Comara Gallery at that
time, quite a few pieces.
SMITH: There was the other comment he made about you spend
too much time on sex, love and death.
WAGNER: Well, he made that statement, yeah. What was it?
No not-- Death, sex and religion; too much time on death,
sex and religion. Well, these were so subconscious to me,
these weren't dreams, because I hadn't started really
working within the dream at that time. This was back
before I really got into the dream, you know. They were
only written dreams, but not manifesting dreams.
SMITH: Is there a relationship between this erotic art and
the peyote altar art that you were doing at the same time?
WAGNER: No, that followed. But of course, that one is a
rather sexual one in itself. That has sexual
connotations: the man and the woman; the sun and the moon,
moon being the woman and the sun--the mating of the two,
where the sun fits into the crescent, or the man and the
woman. Yeah, that's in that symbolism.
SMITH: There's kind of a genital feeling of the--
WAGNER: Well, the legs coming down from that, you know.
SMITH: What about in your work since the seventies, is
there a sexual or erotic element to it?
WAGNER: Well, I've avoided it completely now. I've turned
it off, it doesn't exist within me. Any art relating to
erotic art just doesn't exist. I've gone through it; it
just doesn't happen anymore. Those things just happened.
For some reason no more would I have that in any of my work
that I know of. It just doesn't happen. Unless somebody
wanted to read it into it, but certainly it's not intended
to be in there by anything that I would have been
SMITH: Was that a conscious decision on your part not to
include it, or just--
WAGNER: No, I just outgrew it when I became married to
Virginia [Copeland Wagner] in '67. My sublimation was
over. I didn't have to sublimate anymore. The whole
different thing changed. When I was in Belgium and
Holland, and I looked at these paintings in these
galleries, as a matter of fact, I was--
TAPE NUMBER: XI, SIDE TWO
FEBRUARY 28, 1987
SMITH: You were saying when you went to Belgium and
WAGNER: I looked at this dealer in London, the one I told
you about. Jean-Pierre Lehman said I should go and see
this gallery in Holland, in Amsterdam, because she would
probably really love my work. I went to see her, and she
said, "I'm not interested in your work at all." You know,
Dutch are very gruff. "I'm not the slightest bit
interested in your work. Where would Jean-Pierre Lehman
get that idea from?" I looked in the gallery, and
everything in the gallery was like a pornographic
exhibition. I said, "When I look around, I realize that I
wouldn't want to be in your gallery anyway because I'm not
interested in this sort of art. I think it's decadent, and
it's like a horror show. Thank you very much", and I
left. And that sort of art, the more I looked at it the
more I became really repelled by the stuff. It actually
made me sick inside to see it. The cheapening of the
beauty of love, taking away that wonderful magic of love
for some cheap paintings and exploiting it like that was a
little more than I could handle. So I think that was
another reason that I subconsciously just moved away from
even thinking about such things.
SMITH: Well, is there in your art--if it doesn't reflect,
say, the sublimation of eros, is there then reflected in it
anything of the state of marriage, the domesticity, the
communion of a man and woman in marriage?
WAGNER: Not much. No.
SMITH: I'm not necessarily talking physical, carnal, but
WAGNER: Well, probably what happens is that it's a sort of
escape from everything.
SMITH: Your art?
WAGNER: My art. Everything. Completely. Anything that
can be tied down to a way, it's an escape from it. This is
hard for some people to understand, because they're looking
for a message, an erotic message, a protest message, or
some kind of time- full message. In the dream state and
through the context of my work, I want to make people
happy, give them more humor and joy in life. People who
are looking for the other have a difficult time finding
that because actually they probably do not have
appreciation or humor for my work. My work goes beyond
face value; it goes inside, and it's up to them to find it.
SMITH: Well, another aspect of --an important part of
surrealism is cruelty, sadism, a reflection of that. All
of these are according to the classical surrealists,
eroticism, sadism are what really inhabit the unconscious
and what need to be liberated. Is there cruelty in your
WAGNER: No. No more than Magritte shows cruelty; no more
than Delvaux; no more than Max Ernst.
SMITH: Well, there is some in Max Ernst.
WAGNER: There was that part of surrealism, like Marat-
Sade. [Antonin] Artaud and some of those people showed
cruelty, but they were sort of the crazy people within the
surrealist movement. Breton probably showed cruelty by the
way he treated the artists within the movement by just
throwing them out. But Breton really was a very sensitive
man. I don't think he was actually cruel. I'm sure that
people like--Yves Tanguy was not a cruel person. But
surreal people like [Salvador] Dali, he showed cruelty and
he showed these things, but I always figured that he did it
to shock people through his paranoia, and stinking feet and
all the things he got into, you know. I think he did it
for sensation; he's a showman, where Magritte was never a
showman. There is always going to be-- The Marquis de Sade
was part of the surrealist movement with some artists, but
not all. There was a breaking up-- You might say it would
be cruel to stage performances with animals and things--
Actually, the eyeball that they cut open in--
SMITH: In Chien andalou.
WAGNER: --was not a person's eye at all.
SMITH: That was a donkey eye.
WAGNER: Yeah, I know. I mean but not a live one.
WAGNER: It wasn't a person's eye. Things like that showed
cruelty. The Spanish side of the surrealist movement,
like--what's his name? Oscar Domlnguez, who tried to
destroy every church in Spain. He was out to get
revolution, the communist time, the time of Trotsky. All
this was going on. But Breton backed out of all that, he
wasn't going to be any part of it. Eluard went on with it,
and Gala Eluard, his wife, left him; she didn't want to be
a Marxist, she went with Salvador Dali. But Eluard was a
great poet. Although with all this revolution that was
going on-- Breton only had one idea, he wanted people to
be free. His idea was to shake up the bourgeois in France,
to make them learn something about creating from
themselves. When he found out what these Marxists wanted
to do, he pulled out because he didn't want that kind of
control. He wanted people to be free, not controlled. He
threw Salvador Dali out of the surrealist movement because
Salvador Dali said that all blacks should be slaves
forever. He threw Magritte out of the surrealist movement
because Georgette, his wife, in a caf6 in Paris was wearing
a cross. He said, "Take off that cross." Magritte says,
"Let's go," and he took off and went back to Brussels. He
offended a lot of people, and that might be classified as
cruelty. In that aspect, he wanted to be the pope of
surrealism. He wanted to run the show, right? But there
were a lot of sweet people in the surrealist movement, they
were not all cruel.
SMITH: But still, in many — There is cruelty in Max
Ernst, there's cruelty in Tanguy. Not across the board,
not always, but there are pieces. It's an integral part of
the surrealist ideology: Shocking the bourgeois
respectability by showing the cruelty that is inherent in
ourselves, in our psyche, and therefore in the society.
WAGNER: Yes, but if we go back four or five hundred years
and you look at Bosch, you look at Brueghel, you look at
the Flemish artists, you look at the Italians and some of
the artists in the Sint Maarten Latem school and others in
Belgium over periods of time, [Pieter] de Hooch, how much
did they paint about cruelty, and they were not
surrealists. Stretching people out with horses and
dividing them, drawing and quartering people, saints and
religious people. And how could anything be more cruel
than the crucifixion of Christ? So painters of all-- Lots
of painters show cruelty.
WAGNER: But they're telling it like it is.
SMITH: But in terms of your art, you are not interested in
WAGNER: I'm interested in being aware of the fact that
cruelty exits all around me every day. We have more
cruelty probably right now than we've had in years in our
society, with all of the beaten children and the things
that are going on right now, the way the poor are being
neglected and the street people. The lack of interest and
concern. There's more now probably than we've had in years
in a different way, but it's still cruelty. I am aware of
the fact that it's there, but if I were to paint it, then
I'm being in a protest state, I'm not being in the world of
timelessness. I'm telling you something that's either
happened or is happening. Like Magritte, he can think of a
thousand ideas, I remember him saying, but only one of them
is a good one, because it follows what he's doing. Because
he doesn't want to jump around and sidetrack himself off of
where his direction is, so he has to give those others
up. Max Ernst was the opposite, he'd do anything, you
know. He'd have one painting this way, and a drawing this
way, and a collage this way. But he still maintained his
whole. Magritte just painted; he didn't want to get
sidetracked by protest, hate. He made a few paintings,
like The Murder and The Room, things like that, but
basically he was a timeless artist.
SMITH: My understanding of surrealism is that an important
part of it is liberation through releasing the
unconsciousness. By releasing the unconsciousness, you
challenge bourgeois respectability, bourgeois
sentimentality, bourgeois conventionality.
WAGNER: That is correct.
SMITH: Is that part of your art? Are you interested in
challenging the bourgeois conventionality and
respectability of here, in this country at this time, or of
WAGNER: No, not really.
SMITH: Of getting whoever to look at their lives in that
WAGNER: Not really. I was at one time.
SMITH: Which time?
WAGNER: When I was young, I used to worry about those
things, but not anymore. I don't care what anybody thinks
about them now. They can love them or they can hate them,
it makes no difference to me. I have no-- I disconnect
myself with it, detach myself from tomorrow and from
yesterday, you know. Now is what is important. I realize
the limitations of our society. I realize that most people
aren't even bourgeois, they're just nothing. We've lost
our bourgeois in America; we don't have a bourgeois here
anymore, we've got the yuppies, and this cult and that
cult, and this race of people and that race of people. Our
country is not all Americans, where France was all French
and where Belgium was all Belgians. Here we have such a
melting pot of people. I could work here for the next
hundred years, and I bet you that 95 percent of the people
in the United States would never see it or see any other
art. It just keeps going on, and they probably would never
know about it, ever. Because they're-- It's not football,
it's not baseball, it's not athletics, it's not boating,
it's not surfing, it's not Chinese, it's not Japanese, it's
not Mexican. And there's only a handful of us American
artists, California American artists, left. Where's our
audience? A handful of people. So what bourgeois? There
isn't anymore bourgeois. Everybody is battling against
being bourgeois in California. They've got to be yuppies,
or they've got to be something. There's no time for the
bourgeois. They're dead or on their last leg of- -maybe in
their eighties, maybe in rest homes or someplace. Very few
of them left.
SMITH: You mean traditional bourgeois?
SMITH: There's still stockbrokers and real estate agents,
and all that kind of thing.
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. They're beyond the bourgeois, I
think. Because half of them have already been-- I bet
half of the stockbrokers and half of the real estate people
have been through the hippie movement, and they lived in
all of this ferment. They've probably been on all sorts of
acid trips, and they've changed into different
personalities because the fad changed. That's the problem
here with our society here, the fads. So the bourgeois
doesn't exist. It never existed in California; we never
had one in the beginning, I don't believe. Not in the
sense of the bourgeois, who were closed-minded burghers.
We never had burghers.
SMITH: Well, we had Warren Dorn saying that C6zanne was a
secret communist plot.
SMITH: Back in the fifties.
WAGNER: Well, true. You mean in the time of McCarthy.
SMITH: The McCarthy period, when modern, contemporary- -
WAGNER: Well, that was Hollywood they were after, right?
The film directors and the producers.
SMITH: Right, but they also said contemporary art,
abstract expressionism was communism.
WAGNER: Well, of course, maps of strategic areas that the
Russians wanted for blowing up the United States. That was
insanity, not bourgeois. That was coming from Councilman
Harold Harby's office. He was the one. He was the one who
was accusing them. He was accusing Bernard Rosenthal's
sculpture on the police building with the faces that are
faceless of being communist because they didn't have
faces. He wanted the sculpture to be all people; nobody
especially, just all people. He wanted that torn down
because that was really a communist piece. During the WPA
[Works Progress Administration] times a lot of the old
communist artists were working on the murals here in the
museum, down in the old museum restaurant. [Edward]
Biberman. All around the different WPA projects. They
were all fighting at that time for-- "We need money, us
artists." Well, most of them made more money during the
Depression than they made in years. [laughter] They
hadn't been paid before.
SMITH: There's another aspect of surrealism that I want to
see how you relate to, which is the question of
spontaneity, the automatic painting, short-circuiting
consciousness. How does spontaneity and non-consciousness
fit into your work methods?
WAGNER: Well, in my earlier works I used lots of
spontaneity in my assemblages, you know, the object related
to some other object with nothing really in mind, just
building it up, purely coming from spontaneity, right out
of nowhere, you know. That still is a very important thing
in my work, spontaneity. It looks like it's frozen. Like
this piece here is totally spontaneous, yet it looks
frozen. But everything that went in there came off of the
walls, or in boxes, or in junk, or that I found around,
and it all came together into a spontaneous composition
because-- The only concept in that whole piece here--
SMITH: This is a work in progress that you're doing, now.
WAGNER: This was a ship. I wanted it to go disappear
through the edge of the painting and come out down out of a
fireplace. So what was the fireplace in the painting, what
environment was I going to put that in? I held the concept
of the ship in the painting and the ship in the fireplace;
the rest was a spontaneous experience of the piano and the
table and the cards and the saxophone. When I saw the
piano and the saxophone, then I got thinking about The
Music Room and related to it. Cards and haphazard beer
cans and things, like a man who lived in this room. I've
known many who live in a single room where things are in a
bit of disarray. But they have the things they like around
them: cards or chess games or beer cans they don't quite
clean up, pianos maybe, musical instruments lying around.
So it's a room of a man who's obviously a bachelor, but
that comes spontaneously. Everything has to come through
spontaneity, because it's automatic. It is. It's like
automatic writing; it's like automatic painting. You let
it flow from in you out.
SMITH: What is the role of revision in your work? Polish,
WAGNER: Well, it's only, to me, editing.
SMITH: Editing, right.
WAGNER: Editing your chaos. What you can do is you can
take your chaos and put it there in an automatic way,
spontaneous, and then you can notice the way it's thrown
down or the way it appears. There's some elements or forms
or lines or shapes or objects that get in the way of the
other, so it's only a matter of moving them or removing
them. You can say the whole message many times with less
than a whole lot of things. Less is more. So that's
reorganizing the chaos and editing your automatic concept,
painting. It's removing a whole area that's too busy, and
when that area is removed, there's something over here
that's too strong, so you take that out. So the form
that's left becomes stronger rather than surrounded by a
lot of redundant things. So it's removing things of the
chaos or the automatic painting, automatic writing. You
automatically write something and you leave it, wham.
You'll go back and read it, maybe, and that's a redundant
line, you throw it out, right? Same thing.
SMITH: Have you ever been in psychoanalysis?
WAGNER: No, never in my life. I've never been in their
office. I have no reason to want to go, or any idea of
SMITH: Psychoanalytic theory, again, was a big part of
surrealism. Have you been interested in it just from a
literary point of view, from a theoretical point of view?
WAGNER: Well, I think [Sigmund] Freud did more to destroy
our culture than probably any psychologist that's ever been
around. Through sexual libido drives, and placing that
above all things, and the dream and the automatic writing
and the subconscious through cocaine and opium that he
used. I've known-- My wife is the victim of a Freudian
psychologist, and her husband was, too. Broke up their
SMITH: Her first husband?
WAGNER: Um-hmm. It's not all the way it should be.
Although Freud at that time was very big with the
surrealists, with Breton, because he was doing these
things. He was talking about automatic writing and
automatic painting and automatic creativity. If [Carl]
Jung would have been around at that time-- Jung was still
not there; he was a student of Freud. If Jung would have
been around at that time, I'm sure that the surrealists
would have picked up on Jung a lot faster. Because Jung
had a lot more to say about the whole, the harmony, the
universal harmony, and the quaternity, and all the symbols
of man through dream and vision, and the mandalas, and the
working of the human mind from the alchemists. He covered
so much that Freud didn't bother with, you know. Freud
meant well, but Jung went way beyond that, he went up into
the unconscious in a different method. So I wouldn't want
to be analyzed by-- I know a lot of Jungians, and my work
has always been appealing to Jungians. I only have met a
couple of Freudian psychologists, and they seem very
confused to me about my art. They were the ones-- One of
them said one time, actually. Just like William Wilson, he
says, "You're only interested in death, sex, and
religion." And that was from a Freudian psychologist. But
a Jungian psychologist says, "How can you possibly have a
full life and understand anything if you have no interest
in sex, death and religion, " which is the opposite of
SMITH: Something else I wanted to discuss is the
relationship of your interest in surrealism to the piers,
Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, POP [Pacific Ocean Park] .
You mentioned once that the pier, the carnival, is a form
of people's surrealism. Could you go into that more? What
did you mean by that? What's people's surrealism?
WAGNER: You mean like amusement piers? Things of that
SMITH: Yeah. Well, carnival in general, of which the
amusement piers are a particularly Anglo-Saxon form.
WAGNER: Well, as far as the carnivals and the piers and
the palaces of gaiety, the distances of the sea and the
skies, and the structures, and the loneliness, and the
beach, and the feeling of the mist, that's what I'm
interested in. I don't care about the people on the pier;
they mean nothing to me at all, because they're not
surreal, it's the environment that's surreal. Like the
cities that almost float out of the sea, sometimes they're
almost projected in the sky at different times, how you can
see them from distances.
WAGNER: But not too close. There ' d be a dreamlike quality
to them. They don't exist anymore. There isn't any. They
have been destroyed. But the people who worked in the
carnival are just people. The ones that went there were
just people. A lot of people that I wouldn't have any
desire to ever know or care about.
SMITH: But in an interview that you gave with this
newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, you do refer to the piers and
carnival as a form of people's surrealism, you use that
WAGNER: Well, the carnival and the penny arcade was a
stimulation to me. And the pier. But as illusion, as
SMITH: You went on to say that surrealism was the common
man's art, it wasn't an elite form of art.
WAGNER: Absolutely. It's the common man's art. It's the
only art that is the common man's art, because a very
unschooled person can make a dream, draw dreams, he doesn't
have to go to an academy, to a certain type or school of
art. And primitivism, and folk art, all those things sort
of tied together, like African art, Hopi art, the kachinas
and masks. All these things are art of man, and to me they
all relate to the surrealist movement. They're made by
man; they're not made for art. Like the African art and
the American Indians, they're made for religions purposes,
for symbols of power and energy. They're made by a man
specially, or a man makes something very strange and weird
for his child. An old man makes buildings and things. But
they can be very surreal. It's the art of the people. And
when I'm talking about the decoration of the penny arcades
and the piers and whatnot, they're made--they were
constructed with very surreal colors and illusions within
them. But the people weren't. What I'm getting at, the
people were not that were there, but the environment was.
SMITH: Could you define surreal? What do you mean by
surreal? What does the word surreal mean?
WAGNER: Actually, surrealism was coined up by [Guillaume]
Apollinaire as a word. It's actually manifesting your work
from the unconscious. That's what it amounts to. If I
wanted to tell you the elements of what surrealism actually
means to me as a person, and to most people, it has about
five or six elements that make something surreal.
WAGNER: One is always, usually, the juxtaposition of
objects not related to one another, common and uncommon
objects in a different context so they wouldn't actually
ever be together. Humor, chance, a riddle, a rebus. A
quality, and many times atmosphere, of distances in
nature. All of these things. And probably the one that is
the most important of all, I'm almost forgetting, is
irrationality. It must be irrational to the logical mind.
SMITH: We talked about Henry Miller before, his important
influence on you. How do you, at this point in your life,
relate surrealism to Henry Miller? Do you see a connection
WAGNER: Well, Henry Miller's dead. Henry Miller did
watercolors, and Henry Miller wrote wonderful books that I
loved. I can't actually say there's much parallel between
what Henry Miller was doing and myself in any way except
his philosophy, which I still think is a very important
SMITH: Which is?
WAGNER: What he wrote is certainly enough to keep me going
for a lifetime as far as my attitude toward society.
SMITH: Which is?
WAGNER: He wrote a letter once to Emil Schnelling and
said, "Let them have their automobiles --their tin buggies,
and let them have their boob tubes, and let them have all
these things. What you have to do, Emil, is to sit down,
stop making watercolors, and start painting, because you're
temporizing. Get rid of the material world." I have no
use for the material world to this day. I'm not interested
in new cars, or any of this. I'm still detached from that
aspect of it, new things. I don't own any new things. I
never bought a piece of furniture in my life, ever. I can
never remember buying a new piece of furniture, a shiny
object, because I don't like shiny, glittering things.
SMITH: Well, let's get back to your boxes and your work in
the seventies and eighties. I think at this point we ought
to perhaps talk about dream narratives, what those are in
your scheme of things.
WAGNER: Well, that would be starting, probably, when?
'Seventy- four? ' Seventy- five? How I really got into the
dream narrative was Virginia. She told me that I should
leave the found-object side after coming back from Belgium
and start working with my dreams, drawing them and writing
them and developing whatever came out of those. My first
narrative dreams were railroad dreams. I used to have a
dream about maybe once every month about these wonderful
trains that were part horse and part locomotive, or they
were prancing steeds, or they were sulky pacers, and they
were rocker-arm trains. They ran on different tracks and
time, and they were so fast that you could hardly see them
go. They just, [whistles] shoo, shoo. I called them the
squiggle trains in the corners of my eyes. The first thing
I did was try to tie them down into some kind of-- What do
they look like actually if I take them out of my dream?
Can I manifest these into trains with horse and locomotives
with prancing steeds? So I pretty much could. I developed
them, and I had them carrying clouds, trains with clouds
all inside. I had them coming out of things, out of walls,
off the tops of mantelpieces and fireplaces. They were big
boxes. The one that is in New Mexico--it's owned by Meg
Heydt--was probably the first one that came off. It was a
mantelpiece with these horse-locomotive trains traveling
across the mantel with a mirror, and down below was a
rocker-arm train coming out of the fireplace. It was
called The Trains in the Comers of My Eye. It was the
first actual piece, probably, that I could manifest from a
dream into an actual box. That was the starting point.
Then I took fragments of all of these dreams and railroad
stations and whatnot, and they started to come out. The
more I started to find these elements within myself of
these buildings and archways, the more I could get inside
of it. Then labyrinths started appearing. As the
labyrinths started appearing, things started to relate to
the labyrinths. I'd make the labyrinths and I'd go into
infinity places with these things. I just kept letting it
grow. All my dreams that were direct dreams from writing
it down in the morning, immediately after my-- Usually, I
had my best dreams in that twilight sleep, in the last
three or four minutes. I had wonderful dreams in the
Silver Lake district. Echo Park. It was something about
the place that fed me more dreams than I've ever had
anyplace. Maybe the fact that I've manifested so many
dreams, maybe I'm running out of imagery. I don't know.
That was really the turning point, the drawing of the
dreams. Memories of the Future, getting into that sort of
SMITH: Had you written down your dreams previously to
WAGNER: No. No, I hadn't.
SMITH: You had done in the sixties the assemblages of the
railroad imagery. Not trains, but the railroad imagery.
WAGNER : Parts and components .
SMITH: Did those come out of dreams?
WAGNER: No. No, they didn't. They came right out of the
dump into a spontaneous thing. Whatever it was related.
No, they did not come from any dream. They were just for
real. What's happened. There were no narratives connected
with those as far as-- It was just the overall thing that
SMITH: Were you remembering your dreams at that time?
Were railroads part of your dreams at that time?
WAGNER: No, my dreams at that time were basically death
dreams, the fear of death, funerals, and all of that sort
of thing. But I didn't do anything with them in that
way. I've made boxes about them, but I wasn't aware of the
fact-- They were just there, these death dreams. Scared
me to death, a lot of nightmares. I had those right up to
the time that I was married to Virginia. She was the one
that pulled me out of that. And I wrote it, the death
SMITH: You wrote those down.
WAGNER: Yeah, during that time. As far as working on the
boxes, so many of them are fragments of my night
journeys. Maybe just of one corner of a room or something,
and whatever relates to that fragment goes into the
SMITH: Do the ships come from your dreams?
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Yes, I've had quite a few ship
dreams. In fact, I had one just last night that was a
wonderful ship dream. It wasn't on the ocean, it was in
San Francisco. It started on Powell Street and followed
the cable car right up to the top of--
SMITH: Nob Hill.
WAGNER: Jones [Street] over to Hyde [Street], and we went
down the other side. But the buildings all moved and
rocked and leaned while we were in this huge ship with my
friend, Tom Fresh, who was the pilot of the ship. He was
telling me about all of his girlfriends, and do I remember
this girlfriend and that one. And he was piloting-- It was
like the Love Boat, like Viking Line, like the Star Daricer,
or one of those big ships. And here we were going down the
hills of San Francisco. We made two or three corners; when
we made the corner, we almost wiped out a while side of a
building. [Laughter] That was last night's dream. That
might be an interesting thing to manifest, you know?
WAGNER: Some day. That was direct. As for other dreams,
I had a wonderful dream —
TAPE hnjh4BER: XII, SIDE ONE
MARCH 7, 1987
SMITH: When we left off last week, we had been talking
about surrealism and your first stay in Belgium. You
stayed in Belgium the first time about four months, five
WAGNER: The first time, yeah, about that long, four
months. Then I went to Amsterdam; came back to Belgium.
SMITH: Did Virginia [Copeland Wagner] join you there? Did
the two of you live there for awhile?
WAGNER: I'm trying to remember where we were at that
moment in Belgium, what had happened. Had I had an
exhibition in Beligum yet?
WAGNER: At the [Galerij] Kaleidoscoop and the [Gal6rie]
L'Angle-Aigu in Brussels and [Galerij] Te Zwarte Panter [in
Antwerp] . Virginia was there. She was away for awhile,
and then she came and joined me. I was there for about two
months, and then she joined me in April.
SMITH: You returned back to Los Angeles. When you
returned back to Los Angeles, did you continue making the
WAGNER: Oh, yes. I really got into it a lot more when I
got back from Belgium. I started making boxes more,
fabricating the objects within them instead of using found
objects, because I was very much interested in getting into
a more surreal context than just the objects themselves.
My first shows in Europe, in Belgium, were with the object
related to the box. I started fabricating-- This would
be-- What year are we talking about?
SMITH: 'Seventy- three, '74, I guess.
WAGNER: 'Seventy- four. Yeah, that's when I did the series
of things related to kings and queens and palaces, using
very rational symbolism and very irrational situations
within the boxes, using formats of chessboards and things
that were rational and logical.
SMITH: Well, could you explain what you mean by
WAGNER: Well, irrationality to me is when-- Actually,
irrationality comes from the inside and doesn't make much
sense to most people. It's not something that is all
logically planned out, rationally planned out. It sort of
comes off of the top of your head and has a lot of nonsense
and riddles and puns and things of that nature within it.
Where the actual box in its environment, like castle walls
or moats or doorways or windows, all of these things are
pretty much the structure of buildings, normal. But what
went on within them, the actions of the trains crossing
fireplaces and ships coming through doorways, kings and
queens and balloons about to fall down if you took the
sword blade out from under them where they were balanced
maybe on an egg in space, those kinds of things are not
exactly what you call real or logical.
SMITH: You also began your playing card series, right, at
WAGNER: That was later. My first actual group of boxes
that I'd completed was in '74 when I had my exhibition at
Silvan Simone Gallery in about '75. That was the first
time that [William] Wilson was kind to me in a long time.
He said, "Well, Wagner's onto something new," and he was
quite happy with that series that I was into. It was a
very positive statement, I was not concentrating on death,
sex and religion, but more into the Alice-in-Wonderland
world of miniature narratives in the surreal context in the
box. So they were sort of minidramas and microcomedies and
mental landscapes. That series was very well received at
the Silvan Simone Gallery. Sold out the show, except for
one piece that I didn't want to sell.
SMITH: I think the next thing I want to discuss is your
leaving Echo Park and going up to San Francisco.
WAGNER: After nineteen years of living in my studio in
Echo Park, my house, it was a blow, believe me, to pick up
my whole world, put it into a public storage and walk away
with nothing except a Volkswagen and a suitcase and decide
to-- We had to do something, but didn't know what. They
sold the house that we were renting. There was nothing we
could do, so we moved out and joined a friend of ours in
Berkeley for about a month until we found another friend of
ours who lived in San Francisco who was going away for
three months. So we were able to stay in his house on Bush
[Street] and Fillmore [Street], That's when I had my
exhibition at the Vorpal [Gallery] , And seeing that I
lived in infinity, so to speak, with a "00000" zip code,
that's what I called the exhibition. Halfway to Infinity.
That's where I built that very large environment in the
upstairs gallery that hadn't even been a gallery, it was
just raw space. The Vorpal Gallery gave me that space up
on the roof, up on the top loft, to set up this piece and
have a show of my boxes. Well, he invested so much money
in that, because he restored the whole gallery for me, tore
down everything that was in the loft and rebuilt it,
refinished the walls. So it was a brand new gallery by the
time the opening came. He wanted to do it, but he didn't
think he was going to be doing it that quickly. It was a
good thing. It was a nice to have it in San Francisco,
that same performance with the big box and the mirrors and
SMITH: That you had first developed in Oregon?
WAGNER: Right. The show went well, also, with it. Boxes
all around it, about fifty boxes, as a matter of fact. It
was a huge space, something like 50 by 120 feet. You can
get a lot of art in it, and it still didn't look crowded.
SMITH: Then you moved out to Sebastopol?
WAGNER: Yeah. This friend of ours, he's an assemblage
artist; I've known him for years, another West Coast
assemblage artist. Raymond Earnhardt, and his wife. Gen.
They were going to Spain for three months, so they said,
"How would you like to come stay in our house? You can use
my studio for three months while we're in Spain."
"Well, it sounds like a great idea. I've never been
to Sebastopol . "
When we got there, it was a paradise. I've never
lived in a place quite so beautiful, with this huge studio
that Raymond just cleared out of a whole big section. So I
had plenty of room to work and check out all of Northern
California. And it's so beautiful around there. He had
about seven acres and a few apple trees and other
gardens. So we got out in nature, and we could work in the
garden and we could work in the studio.
SMITH: What kind of boxes were you doing in San Francisco
WAGNER: Exactly what I had been doing, the same sort of
boxes: making things inside, fabricating the objects, and
building, still, surreal boxes, until I got interested-- In
Sebastopol a thought came to me, I would love to do a
series of playing cards. I would like to do the whole deck
of cards, but I felt that fifty-two boxes might be a little
bit wearing, so I divided up the cards. My first suit of
cards were acrylics, small acrylic paintings about 8-^/2 by
11 [inches] on the "Suit of Circles." I developed that
while I was in Sebastopol. I did one suit of the cards in
circles. Then I worked on boxes at the same time, so I did
about ten boxes and thirteen acrylics in Sebastopol.
SMITH: One of the influences, maybe influence is the wrong
word, but in your conversation, you mentioned that you have
been deeply impressed by Joseph Cornell. When did you
really become aware of Cornell's work?
WAGNER: I think my earliest time that I'd really looked at
Cornell was about 1947 in the Copley Gallery in Beverly
Hills. It was a surrealist gallery, and it was managed by
Bill [William] Copley and Doris Copley. They handled
nothing but surrealist artists, from Max Ernst to Man Ray
to [Rene] Magritte to Cornell to Dorothea Tanning Ernst and
so many of the surrealists. At that time is when I first
looked at the first Cornell boxes. And they were very
reasonable; I think I could have picked one up for about
twenty-five dollars at the time.
SMITH: But an intense interest in Cornell didn't develop
until much later?
WAGNER: No, as a matter of fact, I knew Cornell was there.
but he never really stimulated me in his way. Cornell was
a man that I started to really read about in the
SMITH: After he had died, yeah.
WAGNER: --when the books really came out on Cornell. Dore
Ashton and some of these different writers put out
wonderful books on him. I realized then that Cornell and I
had a lot in common in many ways. We were both living in
another world, not a world of this time, but of other
times, other places, and partially there isn't any other
place, you're just living there, if not identifiable to it.
Cornell was basically interested in dancers, ballet,
ballerinas, and he was interested in star charts. He was a
Christian Scientist. He loved old memorabilia. He loved
sort of decadence. He loved anything French. He was a
great admirer of [St6phane] Mallarm6, [Andr6] Breton and
all the French poets, and he was very involved in all
that. He used lots of French in his boxes: the words and
the hotels and the places and collecting different objects
and collage in his boxes from the French. Although he'd
never been to France. He'd never been out of Flushing [New
York] except I think to go to Manhattan to take some boxes
in a paper sack to the Janus Gallery and to collect objects
maybe in junkstores that he could find. He loved all of the
ballerinas, and he did things for Dance magazine, covers
and whatnot. Most of his work was actually constructed for
his brother, Robert, who was in a wheelchair. He used to
run up and down his three-story house at 3708 Utopia
Parkway from the cellar to the top, up to the attic. He
had things going at all these levels. He was a recluse,
actually. He stayed home except when he went to the
Christian Science church, quite regularly; I think it was
daily. I loved the way they described his head as if he
was a chambered nautilus with sort of-- His whole mind went
out to infinity. Cornell's work is like mine in one way:
women love our works. Women are the ones who collect our
works, not men. It's very interesting that women love
boxes. It was the same with Cornell. At one point Octavio
Paz and Max Ernst and their wives, and somebody else showed
up with them, and-- Cornell took the wives upstairs to see
his boxes and let Octavio Paz and Max Ernst talking
downstairs because he knew they wouldn't be interested in
his work at all. So he kept it sort of for women.
He set up his whole house one time as a party for Zizi
Jean-Mere, the ballet dancer from the French Roland Petit
company at the time. He loved her, but he never met her,
so he prepared his house with all boxes and decorations to
give her a party. She came to the party, but he
disappeared; he never met her. He was that type of person,
He was telling us about what he really loved about
dance and about shooting-gallery birds and about soap-
bubble kits and rings and all of this astrology and
mythology and the things that he was into. They were sort
of alchemical almost, magic, and his sand fountains, and
all these different wonderful collages he made with almost
alchemical symbols. Although inside of the whole thing,
there was usually somebody that he admired. He took
Magritte's postcard, I remember, and rearranged it and
altered it, the one called Time Transfixed, with the train
coming out. He loved Magritte's wife. Georgette; although
he'd never met her, he loved her. She was a beautiful
person, and he loved the image of the person. I don't
think he actually could really-- He never really wanted to
know the person, although he did in many cases, with some
of the poets. But he had trunks full of old poetry by some
remote poets and dossiers in his garage just solid with
butterflies and objects and balloons and circles and rings
and star charts. When he died, I was in Sweden having my
opening at the Konstsalongen Kavalletin, and they told me
that Cornell had just died. It was '71, I think. I was
very disappointed about that because I had never had a
chance to meet Cornell. I had always wanted to, but I
never got around to it. We're going back now to when I was
still in Echo Park. When I was having my show in New York
and staying in Jamaica with my friend who was a painter.
Vitas Sakalofski, I said, "Vitas, someplace around here--
You must live close to Flushing."
He said, "Oh yeah, it's only about ten blocks away."
I said, "Do you know where Utopia Parkway is?"
He said, "Of course."
"Well, I'm going to go to see Cornell's house."
"Where does he live there?"
"Oh, let's go tomorrow. We'll go in the afternoon."
We got in his old bus and took off for the Utopia
Parkway. He lived in a community that was like Europe,
Dutch houses and wonderful houses. I felt like I was in
Belgium or someplace. It didn't seem like anyplace else in
Europe. So I could see where he could get all this energy
through this kind of architecture. We walked-- There was
somebody in the garage with a car, and we walked over to
the man next door. He says, "You looking for somebody?"
And I said, "Yeah. I was admiring the house here of
"Oh, yeah? You like the guy?"
And I said, "Yes, I found him to be quite a nice
artist." I said, "Did you know him?"
"My wife knows him."
I said, "Do you own anything of his?"
"Oh, yeah, a few things."
I said, "They're worth a lot of money now, you
know . "
He said, "You mean to tell me people pay money for the
crap he did?"
Finally, the wife came out. She said, "I've known
Joseph ever since I was four years old, and my son used to
work with Joseph and help him with his boxes to treat the
outsides. I'll show you something." She brought this box
out and a collage and two or three other things. She said,
"The last we saw of Joseph was at Christmas Eve. That was
his birthday, and every year he loved to celebrate
Christmas Eve on his birthday. We invited him to come over
to our house for a big party for him and for everybody,
and he phoned up at about ten minutes before the party
started and he says, 'I don't really want to come over.
There'll be too many people there, and I don't want to talk
to people. ' " So he never showed up for the party, and he
died right after that.
So Joseph, his philosophy is parallel to mine, but
with a different message. We both have that same inner
feeling about poetry and threads of our life parallel each
other. His father was a Dutchman like mine; he comes from
a Dutch family. I would like to have actually met him.
SMITH: Recently there's been some discussion in the art
critical circles about the importance of the grid in
twentieth-century art, and Cornell's name of course comes
up frequently as an artist who has imposed a grid framework
upon what he was doing, similar, in a sense, to [Piet]
Mondrian or any number of artists, actually. Is the grid
framework important in your work, would you say?
WAGNER: Well, if you're actually squaring things off like
this one or that one with the spiderweb for a grid instead
of this [rectangular] grid.
SMITH: What's the name of that piece there?
WAGNER: That is called The Staircase, the suitcase with
the stairs coming out of it with a grid. For awhile there,
for about, oh, several years ago, I used to adapt the grid
a lot to my work. It was a way of killing the space that
you were afraid was too dull. It did liven up a
distance. This one has a grid. No, this one doesn't have
a grid. No, I guess I don't have any with grids at
present. Except this one is an example.
SMITH: With the suitcase. And what's the name of the
WAGNER: But I've used the spiderweb as a grid.
WAGNER: Rather than the actual 90-degree grid.
SMITH: Your use of windows and portals and that, are they
also a form of grid for you?
WAGNER: Yeah, right, they're setting up a negative
space. The grid has a tendency to strengthen many works
that would lose itself if it was just blank. A grid pulls
things forward so that everything behind it goes back.
It's like looking through jail bars.
SMITH: It's a form of control of the space, then. I
wanted to move on to the subject of you and Virginia
becoming involved with Catholicism, That began when you
WAGNER: In Sebastopol .
SMITH: In Sebastopol?
WAGNER: Yeah, that's where I was at that moment. I was
working in my studio when Virginia came home one afternoon,
and she said, "I've just met a wonderful Jesuit priest who
agreed to trade Alexander [technique] lessons." And he
said, "What could I do for you?" And she said, "Well, I'd
like to learn something about the Catholic church and about
religion, on that matter."
SMITH: What were your religious leanings at that time?
WAGNER: At that time we were pretty much into the Oriental
philosophies, into the Taoist. That was our favorite of
all that we'd tried. We'd gone through Hinduism and
Buddhism, and we found that Taoism seemed to be the one we
loved the most, because it had the most balance and was
closer to what we knew. Because living with the Indians,
that was more or less their philosophy; it was almost a
Lao-tze philosophy, all their myth and their
quaternities. The Jungian way. It all tied together.
SMITH: So what was your reaction to Virginia's interest in
trading lessons for--
WAGNER: I was pretty unhappy with the whole situation. I
said, "I'll tell you: you can do whatever you want with it,
but don't count me in on joining up with any church. I
don't want any part of it." I'd been through it in my life
with my first wife and my kids, and I didn't like the way
the church was operating. I didn't like the parish life or
the community or anything about it at that time. I used to
have to go as a duty, being married to my first wife, who
didn't go, I had to go to take my children. My first wife
was a Catholic, We were married in the Catholic church in
the Carmel mission, but she never really wanted to go to
church. She was turned off by the church from childhood,
and so that made it very difficult for me because I would
have to take my daughters. I thought that I was a
Catholic, or had been; when I went in, they gave me
communion. It was so long ago, I couldn't remember, but I
knew I didn't want it. I battled it with Virginia, all
kinds of pros and cons, about why would you want to do this
She said, "I'm going to go and find out more."
And I said, "You go right ahead, but don't count me in
on any of it. "
SMITH: So she began to study Catholicism. What led you to
decide to investigate it for yourself?
WAGNER: Well, I was invited to mass at Saint Ignatius [de
Loyola] Church at USF [University of San Francisco] by the
Jesuit who was talking with Virginia, Father Swain.
SMITH: What's his first name?
WAGNER: Father Arthur Swain. After the mass we would have
lunch. This we did, and I remember him saying to me--the
first thing he said to me when he met me-- "What's a nice
guy like you hanging around a place like this for?" So we
had lunch. He was very brilliant, good sense of humor,
laughed all the time; I enjoyed it. Then we went across
the street to the Carmelite monastery where the cloister
is, the [Monastery of] Cristo Rey is the name of it, where
there's about twenty-one Carmelite nuns of the order
established by Saint Teresa of Avila. We talked with them.
Father Swain was their confessor, so he introduced us to
the reverend mother and her assistant, and they were just
charming women. They were from Mexico; they had to get out
of Mexico at the time of the revolution. They came to
America, and they'd been in the Cristo Rey ever since.
SMITH: They were quite elderly, then, at this time.
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. The reverend mother, she must be about
seventy-eight, she looks about thirty right now. Not a
line on her face; she looks like a young girl. Incredible
person, wonderful energy. So we talked to them for
awhile. They were just-- I was really impressed by these
women, but I couldn't understand how they could live all
their lives within this enclosure with never knowing
anything about what was going on in the outside world,
never. They know nothing about anything in the outside the
world except zip codes. They mail things a lot, but they
don't know — They say, "That zip code, oh yeah, that's in
North Beach, isn't it?" or, "That's in the Richmond
district," or "That's in Sea Cliff", or "That's up in the
Haight-Ashbury. Where's the Haight-Ashbury, Gordon? We've
heard so much about that from time to time." Well, Haight-
Ashbury is actually about three blocks down the hill and
across the panhandle, about five blocks away, but they
didn't exactly know where it was.
SMITH: They never leave the walls of the cloister?
WAGNER: Only in an emergency. It was very interesting,
that life within that cloister. It's probably one of the
most beautiful places in San Francisco; I mean, once you
see it. It just illuminates with light, just drips with
light, it's so beautiful. So they gave us each a rosary
and how to say it. They gave Virginia a book on the life
of Saint Teresa of Avila to read. Their blessed mother--
their holy mother, rather, is Saint Teresa of Avila. Then
we left and went back to Sebastopol . Virginia kept going
to Father Swain and I kept working in my studio. The thing
of it was that Gen Barnhardt had some of the writings of
Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila in her
library because she was a Catholic. The sculptor, Ray's
WAGNER: So we started going to the churches around there
on Sunday, not receiving any communion, but just going,
seeing what it was like. Went to Sebastopol one Sunday,
we'd go to Bodega the next Sunday, we'd go to Petaluma,
we'd go to Santa Rosa; we'd go to different ones and see
what it was like and how it felt, you know. All the time,
every Sunday we would go, in Sebastopol, just on a little
drive someplace. We found that the people were so
incredibly friendly and so loving that it must be something
wrong. The priests were so nice, and they talked about
things that--there was no hellfire and brimstone; there was
none of that sort of thing going on. Good sense of humor,
good wit. There was something happening within us at that
moment. I was still resisting the actual idea of any
organization of any kind, because I've never belonged to
anything; I don't believe in organizations, and I was
always a nonorganization man. So it was a battle going on
SMITH: Then what happened?
WAGNER: We left Sebastopol.
SMITH: There was something that was appealing to you, but
it sounds like it was more on an aesthetic level than a
WAGNER: Well, of course, because in Mexico I used to go to
the church every day and sit down by myself. I loved the
Latin mass; I loved the chanting; I loved the mysticism and
the things that you couldn't see. Logical people can't
accept mysticism and the mythical. Being an irrational
person, it was easy for me to pick up on these things.
Because this story about Jesus Christ and the Lord in the
Bible, the Old Testament and all of the Gospels, verse and
everything that goes with it-- Either there's about nine
hundred million, almost a billion. Catholics that are
really suckers to the biggest lie in the world, or it's the
truth. So if it's the truth, then you've got to go along
with it. So what are you going to do? I'm going to just
go along and accept the fact that it is and have that kind
of faith. It's faith, that's all it is. You either
believe it or you don't believe it. You don't have to
analyze it, it's an aesthetic thing. It was the same thing
when I'd sit in the church in Mexico, I had faith. If I
didn't have faith I couldn't be an artist all my life, I
would have given it up for the material world thinking, "I
can't make it as an artist. I won't have any money; I'm
going to starve to death. I'm going to do this and I'm
going to do that." I never thought that way. I just keep
doing what I have to do. It's sort of an assistance to me
to be able to do what I do now and know that I have faith
and that I'd turn it over to the Lord. I do not turn it
over to myself; I am not running my show. He's running
But to get back to Sebastopol: We left Sebastopol,
and when Virginia came home, she said to Gen, "Boy, I sure
loved your books. I read Saint John of the Cross and I'm
thinking about becoming Catholic."
Gen turned around and said, "Well, join the club."
So we went over to San Francisco then. We were
invited to stay in Mary Jane Staymate ' s house on Sutter
[Street] and Fillmore [Street], where she gave us the whole
top floor except her bedroom. We had a big bedroom in the
front, and then there was another room, and then there was
a small room that was Mary Jane's bedroom. There was an
unfinished kitchen and deck, and that was turned over to me
for my studio because it was empty. It was a big room, so
I had plenty of room; it was like thirty by thirty feet.
So I could work there, I worked in that studio. I had to
wait until she would get up in the morning so I could pass
through her bedroom to the studio, there was no other way
in. Sometimes she didn't get up until nine o'clock and I'd
be up at six, so I'd have to contemplate and think and do
something else. She wasn't very much in favor of the
Catholic church; she was a good Presbyterian, in the choir.
But she was a very kind person, and she was a fighter for
the community, and she was against HUD [United States
Department of Housing and Urban Development] ; she was
trying to stop a housing development in San Francisco. All
these kinds of things; she was working on projects. She
was from Arizona. She was a strong woman. She had a
beautiful Queen Anne house.
Well, Virginia was going on studying with Father
Swain. She finally asked me if I would come and talk--he
asked if I would come and talk to him about things, get
something going once a week. I didn't want to do it,
wasn't interested. But the way it worked out, I finally
condescended to go once a week to go talk with him for one
hour. And he said, "I'm not going to do the talking,
you're going to do the talking. You tell me what's on your
mind about this church." So for about ten weeks, I think,
everytime I talked with him, I told him everything I didn't
like about the church and about the people involved in the
church and the way the church operated in-- Any
organization I didn't like, no matter what. But it seemed
to me that he was able to get around all those things; he
always came out on top of the argument. So we found that
it was really quite an interesting battle between Father
Arthur Swain and myself.
TAPE NUMBER: XII, SIDE TWO
MARCH 7, 1987
SMITH: Were there religious things beginning to appear in
your art? In terms of your boxes, were you beginning to
deal with religious subjects?
WAGNER: Nothing, no. Nothing whatsoever was appearing in
my boxes except what I was doing. When I was at that
period, when I was arguing with him, I was going to [see
Swain], I was making boxes. I made about, oh, fifteen
boxes in that three months we stayed with Mary Jane. I
guess it was more than that, almost six. I made the "Suit
of Squares" playing cards, thirteen acrylics for the "Suit
of Squares." Yeah, I started that.
Then I had a big exhibition coming up in L.A. at the
Downey Museum [of Art] that Lukman Glasgow had invited me
to. So we took off from San Francisco; we came back down
to L.A. and stayed with a friend of ours out in the [San
Fernando] Valley in Woodland Hills, a painter, Pat
Benefield, a surrealist painter, a very good one. We
stayed there for probably about a month, and I worked on
some more boxes there. She had a place where I could
work. As a matter of fact, I built that box over there.
The Gemini Lady, at her place, and this one out there.
SMITH: What's the name of that one?
WAGNER: That's Georgette.
WAGNER: We only stayed with her temporarily because we
were going to go to Belgium.
SMITH: So you returned to Belgium to have a show there?
WAGNER: Well, I didn't know what was going to happen.
Prior to that they had given me an exhibition, oh, probably
about a year before, and they'd sold about ten or fifteen
pieces for me out of that show in the Architektenhuis in
Gent. They had money in the bank in Brussels for me, and
it amounted to something like, oh, I forget how many
Belgian francs, but it amounted to $5,000 American. So it
was possible for us to go, and live there without spending
any American dollars. So we decided we would go with
nothing really in mind except to go and see what was going
on, check it out. So that was an experience, going to
Belgium, getting there and being there the first-- You
wouldn't want me to discuss that would you?
SMITH: Well, we discussed your going to Belgium before.
WAGNER: This time going to Belgium was a whole different
SMITHWAGNER: In what sense?
WAGNER: Well, I've never been treated like that in any
other country in the world. We took off on the airplane
from LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] and arrived in
London at twelve noon, and from London to Brussels, and we
got there about three thirty their time, which is about an
hour difference, really, in flight. I got there, and there
wasn't any-- I figured that they knew we were coming, I
figured somebody would be there to meet us . Nobody was
around. We couldn't get out of the customs line. So then
when we did come up to the customs, they don't open
anything up anyway, they say, "How long are you staying?"
I said, "Oh, probably three or four months."
"Oh, that's okay, go ahead."
And we tried to find where we were going to stay. You
know, when you got jet lag like that, it's hard to come out
of the Brussels airport and wonder where you're going the
first night. To get to Brussels it was thirty dollars, to
get to here it was thirty dollars, the hotel was thirty
dollars. I said, "Forget it. How do you get to Gent?"
"A Sabena bus. "
So we looked all over for the Sabena bus. I've got
tools and equipment and all my tool box and stuff to work;
I'm going to work there. The man says, "You get it over
there, " so we wheeled everything over there. "No,
up there, " back and forth. We finally found the Sabena
bus, right in front of the station as you walk out the
door. We got on a Sabena bus, Virginia and I and one more
man going to Sint Maartens Latem, that was it--and the bus
driver; that was the total amount to go from Brussels to
Gent. We got to Gent about six o'clock at night. I said,
"I'll go down to our old hotel," where we used to stay
sometimes, the [Hotel] du Progr^s, when we first went to
Gent a couple of times before we got settled. I carried
the tool boxes and everything down the street, and I said,
"You wait here, Virginia, I'll come back and get you in
case--" I get down there and everybody was welcoming me. I
hadn't seen these people since 1973; this was 1979, and
they were shaking hands like I hadn't been gone all those
years. I asked them if they had a room. "Oh no, no
rooms. Just put your stuff back there and keep it for a
while." So I put it in the back room with the birds. I
went back up and called my friend Lucien [Cornells] . He
says, "Gordon--" Yeah, he came right down and kissed me
three times, and he says, "You're on time. I thought you
weren't coming. We're waiting for you."
I said, "For what?"
"You're having an opening tonight."
I said, "Where?"
"In the Artemis Galeri j . "
I said, "What?"
He said, "Where were you? We sent the daughter of the
govenor of West Flanders, the Countess [Regine van Outryve
d ' I jderwalle] van Odenheim, to fetch you at the airport.
The airport printed a big sign for her because the one she
had was too small, with your name on it. You didn't see
I said, "No".
"She said she waited for over forty-five minutes."
(And all the time we're back in customs. ) "She came to
fetch you . "
I said, "When is this opening?"
"Eight o'clock. You have to eat. Annie [Niset] has
all this soup. We're going to have a feast."
I said, "Part of my luggage is in the du Progres."
"Okay, we go and get that." We had a beer and talked
for a couple of minutes, and then we went over there.
We went back, and here's all my friends from all these
years back all at the opening. After the opening closed at
ten o'clock, they said, "The countess of the castle of
[Baron Donj du Lovendegem] van Odenheim is having a party,
and you are invited as one of the honored guests, the
artists. It's necessary that you go there."
I said, "Van Odenheim? That's out by Zottegem and
Zomergem. That's about twenty miles out of town."
"Yeah, that's right."
"You mean we got to go there? We're a little
"No, you've got to go, it's important."
We get out there, and it's a beautiful night, the
stars are all shimmering. We drive up this tree-lined--
they call it a dreef, the tree-lined roads to the castle,
over the drawbridge, the moat, into the courtyard. There
were all these towers and turrets and weathervanes, and the
stars were twinkling. We got out and these big doors
opened, and here is the countess, she is waiting, and she
has two six-foot porcelain hunting hounds, dalmatian dogs
on each side of her. She's bowing and sweeping Belgian-
style, escorts us through the corridor with the kings'
chairs and all of the velvets and the golds and the
heraldry. We walk down this long hallway and down these
winding stairs into the dungeon; that's where the party
was. It was full of people. And she collected boxes. She
had a fireplace that was wider than this room, and six of
us stood in the fireplace and smoked cigarettes because the
smoke went up the chimney, didn't offend anybody that
didn't smoke. It was really something.
At two o'clock in the morning we were pretty tired,
and Virginia was getting tired. And I said, "Lucien, we
got to go pretty soon."
He said, "That's all right, we'll go."
We took off, and on the road two guys come alongside,
"Let's stop for a beer down here in another pub."
"Forget it." It could have gone on for two weeks like
this. This is a strange way to enter Belgium, with jet
lag, you know, to have that all happen on the first night
Also, at that party I made the commitment-- These
dealers were sticking money in my coat pocket, a thousand
Belgian francs, two thousand, [laughter] I got all this
stack of money. We made a commitment for me to have an
exhibition on December 14 of that same year; this was
October, or the middle of September, I guess. December 14
would be the time for the exhibition. That meant that I
had to do some work while I was-- I couldn't fool around
much. So we took a house in Belgium, in Gent, and I
started working. I made the exhibition all right. That
opened on December 14. It was very interesting, because I
wasn't a Catholic yet, I was still on the outside of-- I
wasn't one of them from the standpoint of-- Although we
went to church every Sunday in Gent, never missed. Cold in
the winter. They have big heating lamps in the churches on
posts because they're big stone buildings, and they can get
pretty cold. The birds are flying all over the roof, the
pigeons and the doves. That night was where I was told
that I was to construct The Interior Castle [also known as
The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places] .
SMITH: Who told you?
WAGNER: He is one of the Carmelite priests at the
Carmelite monastery in Gent. It's called the Centrum vor
de Bezeining, meaning the Center of Prayer. It was
Carmelite men. So I was told by Pdre [Frans] Hoornaert
that I was to build this castle. I said, "What kind of a
castle is that?"
"Well, it's about-- It's by the book from Saint Teresa
I said, "We have one at home, in Gent here."
"No, this is not the life, it is the interior
I said, "I don't know anything about it."
"Don't worry about it, you'll find out, no problem.
We're going to have a competition. We're going to invite
artists from all over Belgium to submit their models,
drawings, paintings of the interior castle. We will give
150,000 Belgian francs for the first award."
So my friend Lucien, who was — We were going to
collaborate on it. He was going to do part and I was going
to do part. We thought that would be a good thing to do.
We didn't know if it was a good idea; we didn't even know
what it was. I barely knew anything about Saint Teresa of
Avila, except what I'd learned in Cristo Rey. So all of
the friends that were with him, "Oh, you'll like it. It's
like your work, got lots of toads and snakes and demons."
I mean, like Bosch, oh, yeah, that's right, like Bosch.
I said, "That does sound interesting."
It started from that night, which I found out later,
December 14 is the feast day of the great Carmelite saint,
John of the Cross. It was his feast day that my show
opened in Gent. San Juan de la Cruz, who was with Teresa
of Avila, you know, they were together. She asked for two
priests to help her: Father Antonio and Saint John of the
Cross. She looked at them, and one was a big man, and
Saint John of the Cross was little. She said, "Ah, I have
a priest and a half." [laughter] Saint John of the Cross
was so small.
SMITH: So you had decided that you were going to build The
Interior Castle for this competition?
WAGNER: Well, we discussed it. Lucien and I were going to
SMITH: What kind of concept were you playing with?
WAGNER: I had none. Nothing.
SMITH: What did you know about what the interior castle
was supposed to be?
WAGNER: I had no idea what it was. It's really hard to do
anything until you understand what it's all about, right?
SMITH: You would think. So how did you find out what it
was all about?
WAGNER: Oh, that was much later. That was a long time
after I came back from Belgium. San Francisco and
SMITH: Let's continue. So you didn't The Interior Castle
WAGNER: Oh, no. No, I didn't even attempt it. I had no
way of being able to understand the interior castle as it
should be in Dutch. They didn't have the Spanish version,
and they didn't have an English version.
SMITH: When people turned in their works for competition,
did you see anything?
WAGNER: It never happened.
SMITH: Oh, it never happened.
WAGNER: They got in a lot of trouble in Belgium,
SMITH: The church, or —
WAGNER: Just Belgium got in a financial bind. I guess
they ran out of money to do that. That was a pretty tough
time, 1980, in Belgium. It wasn't easy; they were taxing
everybody, the land taxes, underneath their houses and on
top of their houses, taxing the artists, taxing everything,
you know. So it was really ruining the economy.
SMITH: Then you came back home to the United States after
WAGNER: Came back to San Francisco and moved to the
Richmond District, out by Sea Cliff, on California
[Boulevard] and Twenty-eighth Avenue. I set up my studio
there. I started reading about various and sundry saints
and whatnot. I started working on my playing card series;
I did thirteen boxes on the "Suit of Keyholes" at that
point and finished up a little more polish to the "Suit of
Circles" and the "Suit of Squares." I just went over. So
I had the whole series together, and I read a little bit.
SMITH: What kind of ideas were you working with in the
"Suit of Keyholes"?
SMITH: Boxes, but that--
WAGNER: Thirteen boxes of puns.
WAGNER: Related to numbers. Take one, for example, a box
that would be in the "Suit of Keyholes," The Five of
SMITH: Which was?
WAGNER: Well, it was actually in a room, like a kitchen,
with a sink and a plumber's friend and a ship sinking down
into the cabinet, into the dishtray, sinking. Up on the
wall was written sinko, a pun on cinco. Such things as a
golfer out in the country with a cow off in the distance,
and he's swinging the golf club for four, and that sort of
thing. There were a lot of puns, and yet they have that
medieval feeling to them. It's the same kind of imagery
that I would use in my boxes.
SMITH: The "Suit of Keyholes" was a series of boxes.
WAGNER: Oh, yeah, all thirteen of them.
SMITH: Then you continued with doing pun boxes, right?
There was Door Jam.
WAGNER: Well, then I got into Just plain pun boxes, but
that was not in San Francisco. While I was in San
Francisco, I was just doing the keyholes. That's when we
went to Father Swain and completed our discussions.
Virginia could not become a Catholic because she had had
another marriage she would have to have annulled. She
couldn't track down her former husband, he had disappeared
and there were no papers. It took two years until a
Chinese canon lawyer just went [whistles] shoo, shoo, and
cleared the whole thing off down on Church Street, you
know, at the archdiocese of San Francisco. Then we were
allowed to get married in the church.
SMITH: But you had already become Catholics?
WAGNER: No. No, we weren't. And then we could become
when we were allowed to-- At the final thing we went
through all of the sacraments at once. And Virginia-- The
way it was, I thought I was already cleared being married
to one back down there, but I never knew exactly where I
stood. I said I had been baptized, I'd had communion
before at Carmel, at my wedding. He didn't ask me for
these things, but Virginia had to go through it from
scratch; she had to do everything. Baptized, first
communion, confession and confirmation, and marriage all
five sacraments at once. We went through that in one
day. Father Swain did it all in the baptistry in Saint
Ignatius church with a couple of friends for witnesses. It
took about twenty minutes, and then we went over and she
had her first communion in the Carmelite monastery. The
sisters all sang for us, and it was beautiful. They chant
so well, you know, and they have an organ there, beautiful
chanting. They did that for us privately the next morning
with Father Swain as the celebrant of the mass. Then that
solved that. That's when we got the book of The Interior
Castle. I bought one in San Francisco, and it was so bad,
I couldn't even understand what they were talking about.
It was by another translator, Allison Peers. Didn't
understand it; I just tossed it out.
SMITH: Why were you pursuing it?
WAGNER: Well, I sort of made a vow with Pere Frans that I
would do something about it. And the Carmelites, I told
them about it in Cristo Rey, and they were so happy that it
just had to be done, they knew that. It was going to be
1982 when it had to completed, not before.
SMITH: Who said that?
WAGNER: Well, that was when the four hundredth anniversary
of the death of Teresa of Avila would be coming up. It was
a festival for that. It was their feast. So it had to be;
it was that year. In Belgium they call it four hundred
Jubeljaar. Anyway, they gave me the book by a different
writer, by Kieran Kavanaugh and [Otilio] Rodriguez.
SMITH: Different translators, you mean?
WAGNER: Right. That one started to interest me. The more
I read it, the more I realized, "This woman is totally
insane. Why am I even thinking about such things?" I just
put it away.
SMITH: What do you mean by insane?
WAGNER: She was just mad, you know, madness. I couldn't
understand what she was driving at.
SMITH: You like madness, so why would that put you off?
WAGNER: Well, no, but I couldn't see any way that I could
manifest it into a three-dimensional work of art, you know,
until I read the book about seven times. I kept reading
it, and everytime I would read it, I would find, ah,
there's an image, and I would make notes. I would keep
writing down these notes. I'd go to each mansion of the
seven mansions, and it took months and months. In the
meantime, I'm doing everything else: I'm working on my
keyhole boxes and other things, and I'm writing poetry and
enjoying things and dreams, and I'm doing my normal
thing. But I would set aside time to go through this, and
I saw that there was no hope. I said, "But I've more or
less made a commitment that I'm going to do this thing, and
there's something going to make me do this." I can't
Well, Virginia and I had been married, now, in the
Catholic church. Father Swain said, "Well, your papers
should be coming here pretty soon because-- I've got to
have your baptismal papers from Carmel Mission and your--"
or from Sacred Heart in Hollywood, where I went through my
lessons with Father Ring, who was the head of USF
[University of San Francisco] , he was the dean later,
Jesuit. Well, I got a letter from Carmel Mission, they
said I was a heathen and never had any baptism and that I
had a special dispensation.
SMITH: To get married the first time?
WAGNER: I showed this to Father Swain, he said, "Well, now
what?" He'd married this woman-- "I'll be back." We were
in the middle of a talk about things. He took off for the
office, he said, "Come on, let's go." He got the secretary
out of the office, and he got a girl walking down the
hall. "Let's go, we're going to have a wedding." So we go
back in the baptistry, and we go through the whole marriage
again preceded by my baptism. We had to write out all the
papers and send them down to the archdiocese and do it all
over again. It was funny. He was laughing so hard.
Anyway, so we were married again.
So Virginia and I were married by the I Ching in
Topanga Canyon. We were married by the justice of the
peace in Albuquerque. We were married by Father Swain at
[Saint Ignatius de] Loyola Church USF two times. So we've
been married four times.
So The Interior Castle was on my mind all the time,
but nothing was really happening, nothing was really
developing. And I was starving to death; I was really on
the bottom. I was paying $400 a month rent out there. I'd
never paid that much. I'd been used to paying nothing or
$200 a month all my life. The highest I ever paid was in
Echo Park, from $80 to $200 they raised it. So $400 was — I
couldn't believe it, that high. And Virginia was having a
difficult time getting students. And artists in San
Francisco, I don't know how they live there. They must
starve to death. There is nothing going on for the artist
as far as selling their art. It is a great place for them
to work, but they've really got to get out and hustle. So
I was so glad--
SMITH: Did you have a gallery in San Francisco.
WAGNER: Yeah, Vorpal [Gallery], but they weren't doing
anything for me. I was so glad for this man to come along.
SMITH: Who is this man?
WAGNER: I'm trying to remember his name.
SMITH: No, but where —
WAGNER: He appeared from-- Justine Fixel brought him over
one afternoon and introduced me to this gentleman. We had
a little lunch, and he looked at my work. "I've been
waiting for this! For months I've been waiting for this,"
he said. "I wondered what I was going to do."
I said, "What are you talking about?"
"I'm going to give you an exhibition the end of this
month . "
And I said, "Where?"
He said, "At Cal State [California State University]
Fresno. I'm the director of the gallery." He says, "I
can't pay you much. I can give you $300 for the rental of
your work, and I can give you a ten-page catalog and
guarantee you about $300 for a lecture and pay for your
time in Fresno."
I said, "How am I going to get this work down
"I'm coming. I'll pick it all up. You don't have to
do anything. "
I said, "Yeah, but if I move back down to L.A.--"
"Same distance. I can bring it from Fresno to L.A.
just as easy as San Francisco. Right in the middle, same
distance. You just tell me where you want it to be."
So he moved all of my art for me, gave me this
exhibition. We drove away with two suitcases and the
basket chair from the living room. That was all we had.
Everything else in our apartment we either borrowed from
people or found on the street, like boards and doors and
sawhorses. I gave them away and gave back the things we
borrowed, like chairs and chests of drawers. We walked
away with nothing. Drove out of San Francisco-- Came back
down to L.A. and stayed with a friend out in Canoga Park
until we could find this house in Pasadena. That was in
1980, December, when we arrived here.
Bill [William E.] Minschew [Jr.] was his name, a
friend of Justine and Lawrence Fixel. Great person. He
lives up in Clovis, that's north of Fresno, up on a
mountain. What a wonderful way-- Just like it was a
miracle just landed. He took care of everything; we didn't
have to do a thing, just drive away with our little bug.
Take off for Fresno straight down to L.A. after we'd been
there for about five days. And get paid for it to boot. I
said, "Well, we're getting out of San Francisco. It starts
in Fresno, where they start to recognize artists again."
[laughter] It was miraculous, how that happened. Moved
everything right out to where-- The show ended, and
everything came to my friend's place where we were
staying. It was easy.
SMITH: Well, let's get back to The Interior Castle. You
were working from the book, but all you had was notes and a
WAGNER: When I arrived here, it was December of 1980.
SMITH: And you knew you had to have it done in two years.
WAGNER: By '82.
SMITH: But not before '82?
WAGNER: I had to have it done, well, if possible-- Her
actual feast day was November 15, 1982, but the year before
they were going to be celebrating it all this time, you
know, through '81. I wasn't coming up with anything. I
was reading, reading, reading the book.
SMITH: Were you thinking of a series of boxes?
WAGNER: Oh, I was working on these pun boxes. Anything to
escape The Interior Castle.
SMITH: I mean, in terms of The Interior Castle, were you
conceiving it as a series of boxes?
WAGNER: I wasn't considering it anything. I had no idea
at all what it was going to be. I knew how it wasn't going
to be. I had a thousand ways of knowing how I wasn't going
to do it. But I didn't know how it was going to be. And
then I had some dreams. I had dreams where it was sewn
together, and where it was glued together, and it was made
out of leather, and glass was all running up and down, and
needles were running through all of the things, and it was
all tangled up, and there were mousetraps in it. Just
awful dreams. I was having all these nightmares about
it. Didn't have anything to do with it whatsoever.
SMITH: Those kind of sound like your assemblages from the
WAGNER: No, they weren't even that. These things were
much more messed up than that, no. These were disorganized
piles of nothingness and globs of gloop. It was like they
were being dragged up from the underworld, what was coming
in the dream. But I knew that Teresa of Avila was a
Spanish woman, and she was a fiery Spanish woman, and she
lived in the medieval time, right?
SMITH: Well, renaissance.
WAGNER: Well, 1500. Fifteen hundred had pretty medieval
architecture, they always say.
SMITH: Yeah, well, the transition from the middle ages to
WAGNER: She died in 1582; she died at sixty-eight years
old. She was my age exactly, except for a month. She was
born March 28, an Aries, and I was born April 13, so she
was a month older than I am now. But she was still an
Aries, three weeks older. She is only four hundred years
older than I am. [laughter] So I thought about this
castle as being something that should be related to that
kind of architecture, you know. Oh, I had priests that
were telling me it looked like a chambered nautilus. I had
other ones saying it looked like a ball of mirrors. I had
all sorts of suggestions about how it looked. None of them
were what I saw or what I wanted it to be. So I just kept
looking, kept feeling, kept writing and kept reading.
Well, from 1979, when I started actually--late '79, the end
of '79, the end of December, up to about the middle of '81
or around in there, early '81, I was still reading. I read
the book, I think, seven times. A lot. I knew what I
wanted to put in the castle, but I had no conception what
it looked like. So I had to go to mass one morning, and I
asked Saint Joseph--af ter all, he's a carpenter--and I
said, "Saint Joseph," I said, "you know that I'm an artist
and I like to work and build things. If you want me to
prove it, I can bring my saw and my tools, I will show you
that I am serious about these things. I would appreciate
it if you would actually help me and show me what this
interior castle might look--" I never got the word "like"
out of my mouth, because there it was; it was in front of
me; I was looking at it. He showed me every detail of that
castle, and the vision stayed with me for five minutes so I
could study it. So I raced home immediately and I drew it
out, made a drawing of it, pen and ink, best I could. I
took it to San Francisco, because I was having an opening
the next day after the vision in Pacific Grove Art Center,
so I had to go. I took it to San Francisco, to the
Carmelites, and I showed them what I had. They really
loved it, blessed it, and thought it was going to be just
what it was supposed to be. They could visualize it, too,
when they saw what I'd visualized. I talked about the
seven levels from seven mansions, what was going to be sort
of in it and summarized up the thing. They were very, very
pleased with what was coming. Then I came back, and I
couldn't hardly wait to get back, because I started making
drawings. I worked for the hottest-- I think it was the
hottest summer we'd had here in Pasadena, in 1981. It was
110 degrees all the time, and I was sweating constantly. I
made all the drawings for the whole castle in two days,
scale drawings, working drawings, exactly what it looked
like. While I was working on it, there was a couple that
came over that are doctors here in Pasadena, and I said,
"This is going to be a great thing to do, but I'm broke. I
don't know how I'm going to get it together, the money."
Two days later they mailed a check to me, and it was enough
to get me started.
SMITH: Who was this?
WAGNER: Gordon and Sharon Vigario, who lived down on Oak
Knoll [Avenue] across from the Huntington Hotel there.
They gave me the first money so that I could get going on
SMITH: Were they Catholics or artist patrons?
WAGNER: No, doctors. She works for Caltech [California
Institute of Technology] for some laboratory there. She's
a research lab person. Anyway, so they gave me money.
They were both Catholics. And then Father Joseph Glynn,
who's a Carmelite here in Saint Teresa Church in Alhambra,
he shows up and he hands me a check for $200. "Well,
Gordon, I think you can get going on this now. " Because he
wanted to see this built. I showed him the concept.
"Good," he said. "We keep together."
So every time he'd come over, if I'd just put in two
pieces, he would bless it. "It's coming. Incredible." He
himself is like a leprechaun. He'd bless it everytime.
Forty-eight priests and two archbishops. Cardinal [Timothy]
Manning and the Archbishop [John R.] Quinn, from San
Francisco, they blessed it. All of these guys blessed this
castle, so it has a lot of blessings on it. Everytime it
TAPE NUMBER: XIII, SIDE ONE
MARCH 21, 1987
SMITH: I want to pick up where we left off last time,
which was The Interior Castle [also known as The Castle of
the Seven Dwelling Places] . Where we had left discussing,
you had seen The Interior Castle as a vision when you were
at church. Now, this was not a dream; you distinguish this
from a dream. Why is that?
WAGNER: It wasn't a dream. I wasn't asleep in the church,
I was very much awake. It was at the mass, during the
mass--I don't fall asleep during the mass--and I made a
personal intention at that moment, you're allowed to do
that, when the priest asks people to make personal
intentions. I thought about it. I actually asked Saint
Joseph, who was a carpenter and sort of the patron saint of
workmen and laborers, a very patient man, I asked him if he
could help me, to show me what it might look like after all
these various and sundry preconceptions by just about
everybody. I didn't get the last word out of my mouth when
he showed me the whole vision right in front of my eyes.
There it was, all I had to do was draw it out. I could
remember it in detail. Right now I can remember all the
detail, it was such a strong vision. It came like a light.
SMITH: Had you had other visions before that you used in
your artistic work?
WAGNER: Not very many in my life, no. Not really. Some,
but nothing that I was really conjuring up, that I asked
for like that.
SMITH: So then you drew out the plan for The Interior
Castle. Let's discuss The Interior Castle and its various
levels, how you chose to represent each of the levels.
WAGNER: Well, actually, what I did was I actually
manifested Saint Teresa of Avila's interior castle, the
book she wrote, one of the great books, called El Libre de
Slete Moradas in Spanish, which was her greatest piece of
work, a scholarly piece known all over the world by all
academics. So manifesting it into all this-- Because after
all, the interior castle, who is it? It is every single
person in the world; we're all the interior castle. It's
how far we progress within ourselves in prayer and get
closer to God, into the light. So it had seven mansions,
or seven levels, of progress, the seven moradas, or seven
rooms. The first, outside of the castle, was a moat. She
always talked about it as filled with snakes and vermin and
stench from foul sulfur odors and gasses. Creatures
devouring-- Things that come out of the mud and pull a soul
under so it has no progress in the world, it doesn't have
time for progress or prayer. Now, those snakes and all
those vermin and all those animals and creatures, if you
actually get down to it, they're anxiety, they're hate.
they're lust, they're jealousy, they're greed, they're
viciousness. They're all of the things that keep you from
progressing, from even getting inside of the castle
because-- The first door there is very open to anyone who
wants to go through the door into the castle itself.
The first level is dark, very little light, so you're
just crippling your way through the door. There are two
toads that guard the door, as she says, that try to keep
you from entering. When you actually get inside of the
castle, it's so dark, and it's red and yellow and orange,
the color. It is the Desert of Aridity, as she calls it.
There's a hole in that desert with a well, and the well is
so deep that you have to take a arduous descent down into
the bottom of this well to get a drop of water. Water
doesn't flow there; that's the holy water, the spirit.
Actually, what you're doing in there, you're being
sidetracked. Because in this room there are approximately,
oh, maybe several hundred rooms that spread out around the
first room, almost an infinity of rooms that will distract
you and take you off on all of these different tangents out
of the castle through the rooms rather than to rise
upward. So you're always-- A lateral thing is happening.
At the same time, you're not really seeing anything of the
beauty of the castle because you're so busy still working
and hating and doing these things that you haven't really
gotten into it yet, what it's about.
So if one has enough persistence, one can make it to
the second level. But the second level is not much better
than the first level, because all these people are in an
illusion that they're gaining and making progress. There's
all sorts of things in there that can bother you. The
serpents are still there, and you get carried away with
raptures, circumlocutions, and all of these things that are
very damaging. You can lose yourself right there. You can
also look down through that level to where you were wanting
to say, "I don't want to be in this level, I want to go
back down to where I came from. I know those people, but
I'm not sure I know these people up here, and I don't know
myself here. I better join them where I'm comfortable."
That level has a windlass to draw the water up, much easier
at this moment. That's where the devil sits with a file,
as she says. He works with a noiseless file to cut down
the pillar of charity. If he can catch you in this second
room, he'll dance around hell 68,000 times holding his
tail, for one soul, to take him back down to the bottom and
outside in the moat again.
The third level is when you go upward out of the sky
above you, which is nothing but a mirror of where you are
and where you've been. So getting through the third level
is a very tough one. Once you get through there, then
you've passed the real dangerous point, the danger point of
being taken back down again. But the third level is the
biggest room in the castle. It's filled with people, and
it's a very comfortable place to be. It has gardens and a
viaduct that carries the water with people who clean the
viaduct. But actually, it's a very horrible place to be,
too, because it is not where you want to be. It's not what
Teresa's teaching, she's teaching contemplative prayer. So
these people that are in this big room are, for the most
part, most of the Catholic church. It's comfortable, they
do the right things, the proper order of dress, they do all
these things. But they are quite critical at times of
others, and this is-- They get jarred up; if some emotional
thing happens to them, they come apart. But all in all,
they're all good people, and they all love the Lord, but
they haven't found out how to really get to him yet,
because only in the third room does the light start to come
So there's this big cloud in the top of the third room
called the Cloud of Unknowing. If a person does not go
through the Cloud of Unknowing, they will stay in the third
room forever; they'll never get out of that room. There
are still serpents in that room, not many, but a few; they
can bite you. But the water runs free through the viaduct,
and there's flowers and gardens and everything is quite
beautiful. Romantic and charming. But that isn't it, the
Lord is looking for more than that. You have to go through
the Cloud of Unknowing into the Cloud of Forgetting until
you reach the other side in the fourth room, where it is
the death of the old man and the birth of the new. She
compares the actual soul to the cocoon and the chrysalis.
I have used all these symbols all the way through this
piece, like making my own monsters at the bottom, my own
snakes, my own creatures, giving them funny names, and
slime and mud, and the next room being that muddy room
Inside with the little people all working and struggling,
not paying attention. In the next room I have the devil
sawing down the pillar of charity, and I have all of these
symbols that she was writing about in her book. Then I
have the third room with all the people very comfortable,
hundreds of people in gardens and paths. Nobody's off the
paths, nobody is making any waves, everything is just in
order. It's an ordered garden. So I reach that fourth
room, and I've got the cocoon in a garden that has
nothing. It's just beautiful, with colors that change as
you look through the windows , and then you go around and
you see the chrysalis on another bush.
And then the water has two fonts: One font doesn't do
anything, it just stands there with water in it; the other
font is filling all the time. That's the soul. The more
the soul takes in, the more the water expands, and the more
that comes into him. This is just water, again, she's
talking about. Teresa was a water lover. It's like the
mother and the child. The child cannot grow if it is not
nursed by the mother; it has to have the mother's milk. So
the mother is in there nursing a child in this light.
This room is quiet and still, because she says we talk
too much to the Lord, and we don't listen. Silence is the
most important thing; stop talking and listen to what he
tells you. Don't ask him all the time, let him tell you
what he's telling you. If you ask him something, he will
tell you, but don't keep asking so he can't have a
chance. This is contemplative prayer. And this is where
she was. She was an advanced woman of her time, four
hundred years ago. Quite a radical among the church. A
lot of them thought she was crazy and a flibbertigibbet and
a gadabout and all these things. She was a powerful woman
who had this concept that was given to her by the Lord.
She wrote it all in six weeks, the whole interior castle,
which is a masterpiece.
Well, then we move up to the fifth room, which has the
butterfly. The soul is a white butterfly so enamored by
the love that he has been given--or she, you never call the
soul he, it's always a she--that she has been given, that
she's just suspended in space in this garden where the two
rivers meet at a lake, very good water. Also in that room
is the devil, who comes as the angel of light. Because at
this moment, the soul is so vulnerable as to either rise up
to the light of the Lord or to be taken back down into the
bottom outside into the pit. This is the last chance the
devil has of catching that character, that soul, before it
goes to the next level, which is the sixth level, where
Teresa spent so much of her time.
I have the symbols there of all of the persecutors
around the building. I have the soul, the butterfly again,
still emerging. I have Teresa, herself, an image of her in
the transverberation, where she received the arrow in her
heart by the Lord, the flaming arrow, like the Bellini
sculpture, the same idea, you know, great sculpture of
Bellini. That plus the ocean. She said a great floodgate
opened one time to her in a vision, and all the water ran
in so big that the soul felt like a tiny ship balanced on
the top of the wave. So I have the tiny ship balanced on
top of the waves. I have the Holy Spirit coming down in
that room .
SMITH: How did you choose to represent the Holy Spirit?
WAGNER: With the dove. I have the Son, Jesus, there
because the Son-- She says, "Good Jesus will take me to the
Father, so let him do it." So I have the Father and the
Son and the Holy Spirit there--I have the Son and the Holy
Spirit, and the Father is in the next level up. That's
where the light is, where the tabernacle is for the blessed
sacrament, in the tower. There's a light up there, and
that light rains right down through the center of the whole
castle through the top four levels. The closer you get to
the Lord, the brighter the light. And that's the
Trinity. That is in the center because everyone has the
Trinity within them; down through the center of them
there's the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit within
Between the sixth and the seventh mansion I have two
candles, the white candle and the gold candle. This is the
betrothal between the soul and the Lord. They're entwined,
and they can come apart and they're lighted, or they can
come together and they're lighted. This is a symbol of the
betrothal between the soul and the Lord. Under the
monstrance in the top of the tower where the blessed
sacrament is, I have the butterfly. The soul has died,
given up. The marriage between the soul and the Lord has
been consummated in that seventh mansion, so it's not
necessary for-- It gives up and becomes with the Lord,
married to the Lord. As far as the outer configuration of
the castle, it had fourteen sides, which was a double
seven, because of the seven mansions. I had seven with
seven spindles and seven flying buttresses of gold sending
down the energies down through the spirals into the moat to
try and create energy to take the people into the castle.
Because a pure man, one of the scroungiest bums crawling in
the street, you would think the last person that could even
get up and do anything-- The Lord has a whistle. It's like
a whistle for dogs, you know, when you can't hear it, and
he can whistle, and that poor man can go straight from the
bottom of the moat right to the Lord's room that quick.
And he can be sent back down just that quick. It's within
SMITH: In terms of the visual manifestation, was each
level-- Like the ocean and the flood, that's one image
within that level, the fifth level, right?
WAGNER: All levels have water except the top.
SMITH: Right. What I'm getting at is, how were you-- The
ocean, flooding the room is such a universal kind of image,
it overpowers the other images. There's a temporal aspect
to what she's writing about. How do you combine these
different images into a thing that you see all at once?
WAGNER: You mean physically?
SMITH: Yeah, physically.
WAGNER: I have it right there in the piece. I have this
Holy Spirit, of course, flying, and the butterflies
flying. Jesus is standing on the water. Teresa is on the
water because she could levitate, she could be anyplace.
WAGNER: And the ship, the tiny ship, is balanced between
two points of a big wave. The amount of water was given:
it started small, as a drop down in the well, and the more
you progressed, the more the water comes to you and
flows. That's the Holy Spirit, and that's the holy
water. It is a symbol of taking in. Like some people
accept the Catholic church or any church or any religion in
a thimble. Others accept it in a cup, others in a barrel,
and others in a water tank, and others, the whole ocean;
it's limitless. So the ocean is sort of limitless. What
she actually used in her book for the last water that I
substituted there because I couldn't make it work was rain,
downpours of rain from the heavens. But I used light,
which is still the light of the Holy Spirit.
SMITH: Connected with this on the upper levels, the sixth
and seventh levels in particular, where you're dealing with
an intense spiritual experience, wasn't it difficult to
visualize something that is maybe inherently not visual,
that's very interior?
WAGNER: Well, I'll tell you right now, the seventh level
wasn't bad; I could get that one. But on the fifth and the
sixth ones I was lost for a while. But I had plenty of
time, because after all, I was so familiar with the moat
and the first level and the second level that I could work
on that for three or four months enjoying all the demons
and monsters before I ever had to worry about getting to
that level. By the time I'd been through that much, I
didn't worry about anything on this castle. Teresa was
working with me all the time. I would want to go to the
beach, and I'd feel this tugging, "No, you're not going to
the beach, you're going to work." I devoted every day of
the year to building that piece. I could never get away,
even for-- Well, if I wanted to get something for the
castle it was all right. The lens I had to get, a round
lens with a convex lens to fit into the monstrance for the
Host. I didn't know where I was going to pick that up. I
went to a jewelry store down on Lake [Avenue] and Del Mar
[Boulevard] on the corner. I said, "I've built this
monstrance myself." I said, "Do you have a lens that would
fit into this piece?"
"I'll see." So he took his calipers and measured it
off. He went back and he pushed it in, click, and that was
I said, "Will it ever come out?"
He said, "Never. It will always be there".
I said, "What do I owe you?"
"Owe me? Do you think I'm crazy? I wouldn't take
money for anything like this. This is something that is a
very special piece of art, beautiful piece. How could I
ask money for such a wonderful thing as this?" He was an
Armenian. That was the end of that.
I needed a tube one time to carry light from the
seventh mansion down to the third mansion. It came down
through the center. It needed the edges polished so it
would transmit the light with intensity to the bottom. It
was a plastic tube three inches in diameter. I called up
this company down here on Foothill [Boulevard] and told
them what I had and that I needed it polished up to
"Oh, we burnish those things. You come on down, we'll
take care of it for you."
"What's the charge?"
"It'll be about fifteen dollars for the job."
I said okay. I went down on a Monday morning and I
didn't have my checkbook with me. Oh, I did have a
checkbook, that's right, I didn't have any cash. They took
it in; they came back. "I didn't bring my money, can I
cash a check?"
"To pay for this thing."
"Oh no, don't bother. It's free. Take it."
Endless things like that happened during this whole
project. When I needed something, I was always guided to
it immediately. Somehow I was taken there. Places I'd
never been before, I found myself wandering around in
finding exactly what I wanted for this project. Completely
guided to it. I didn't have to-- Everything fell into
place. The only thing I had a difficult time with were the
twist-turnings that came up the outside. I remember I
wanted to get these things, and they don't make them
anymore, you know, the spiral twists. They were very
difficult to find. I happened to be in the Pasadena
farmer's market, and I saw a friend of mine I hadn't seen
in twenty- five years. The last time I saw him, he had
tried to commit suicide. He crawled down the mountain on
Topanga Canyon to the highway and flagged a ride to the
hospital with a bullet hole through him. Well, anyway, I
hadn't seen him in all these years, and he was there. He
lives in La Caf5ada[-Flintridge] . "Howard," I said.
"Well, Gordon, where you been?" He said, "You still
I said, "Oh, sure." I said, "Well, what are you
do i ng , Howa r d ? "
"Oh, I'm making furniture and refinishing it."
"Oh, wonderful, you're just the man I'm looking for.
Where can I get some of the twist- turned spindles?"
He says, "Well, they don't make them anymore, but I'll
look it up and see what I can find." Two days later he
says, "There's a man out in the San Fernando Valley, in
Sherman Oaks, who has all of that sort of thing. He's a
private company; you can't just walk in and buy it from
him, you have to have a reason. For goodness sake, Gordon,
don't tell him you're an artist or he'll throw you out the
front door. Tell him anything but that. Tell him you're a
designer, or furniture designer, a decorator, and you're
trying to get these. You want to make maybe a hundred of
these things or a thousand of them, and you need the
material for that. Don't ever mention that you're an
So I got out there, I made an appointment and I came
out. I found exactly what I was looking for in the
catalog, just right, you know, three-quarters of an inch in
He said, "How much do you need of this?"
I said, "Well, I need about twenty-one feet."
He said, "Well, they don't come in twenty-one foot
lengths. I don't think you can get it that way. They come
in ten- foot lengths, so you'd have to get about forty feet,
work it out for ten- foot lengths. You'd have to buy
So I said, "All right, whatever you say."
"What kind of business did you say you were in?"
I said, "Liturgical art."
"What the hell is that?" he says. "That got something
to do with the church?"
. I said, "Yeah, I guess so; you might call it that."
"I'm going to tell you something, son," he calls me--
I'm thirty years older than he is--"if you ever come in
here again and buy anything from me, I'm going to throw you
out the door. I've already written this out, so I have to
do it, but don't ever come back."
I said thank you and left. It took two months to
receive this from Grand Rapids, Michigan. When the bill
came, it was $112 for the spindles alone, but I did get
There was a man in Topanga, he wanted to make them for
me, thirty inches long for $80 apiece. So, you see, I did
make out a little better. He was going to carve them for
me, because they're so hard to get. So anyway, we got
that. All those things were helping.
Getting through the fifth and sixth rooms, what am I
going to do? I'm blocked here now; I'm getting up there.
I can get through all this bottom, all this debris, all
these monsters, all these people and all these straight
people with their fountains and their pretty gardens, but
what do I do when I get to this part? That's what the
people say, "What do I do when I reach the third room? How
do I break through the Cloud of Unknowing?" That's what I
had to learn. I learned something about contemplative
prayer by actually reading about what Teresa's talking
about. I knew enough about meditation from my early years
in Buddhism and yoga and Taoism, so it came naturally for
me to be able to to this and to quiet my mind and to stop
thinking, as she said; think less and love more, that's the
way she put it. Instead of going out there and oohing and
aahing and rapturing and going on, give charity to
somebody; help some poor person. That is the best
meditation in the world, helping somebody, charity. So I
just let myself go; I didn't worry about those rooms. I
needed all these flowers and plants and things like that.
I found that one of the greatest places for that sort of
thing is right here in our hometown. Old Stat ' s down
there, where I could get artificial branches and the
feeling of the gardens and things to put into it,
SMITH: Are there any found objects? Did you use any found
objects in The Interior Castle?
WAGNER: No, not found in the sense of found; I bought
objects. Like all of the souls, all of the little people,
which were-- Two hundred and fifty of them are in The
Interior Castle. I bought them all in one big bag of
people down at the Whistle Stop. They were for railroad
stations and trains. They're all the color white, and I
kept them that way because I wanted them to be white souls.
souls all white like the lambs, the lambs or the sheep of
the flock, I made a lot of my own objects for it. I made
all the monsters, made that sort of thing.
SMITH: What about the representation of the devil?
WAGNER: I made the devil.
SMITH: How did you arrive at the imagery for the devil?
WAGNER: Well, it was easy, because I knew a lot about him.
I just made a devil. It was a beautiful devil with the
long wings and sitting on his tail in this room of mirrors
where it goes on to infinity. He comes and goes with a
file in his hand to file down that pillar of charity that
the interior castle was built on, faith, hope and charity,
golden columns like caissons on a building. He's filing
down that one. It was easy to make the devil, one of the--
So simple. Then Virginia, my wife, she made the angel.
She made little figures of Saint Teresa of Avila, and she
made them all: the first one, where she's praying; the
second level, where she's defying the devil with the cross;
the third room, she says, "Hey, you guys, there's more,"
and then she's got the book, "go up to the fourth mansion";
she's telling them there's more. There's nobody in the
fourth room, just a butterfly--I mean, just the cocoon and
the chrysalis and the mother and child, but not Teresa. In
the fifth room, the angel of light is there--Virginia made
the angel of light--and Teresa's also there helping a
child. In the sixth room, she's in transverberation,
SMITH: The use of the toy figures gives a kind of
childlike quality to the piece, not childish but
childlike. Was that something that you were aiming for?
Was that a goal, the simplicity?
WAGNER: Well, they're not really childlike, the ones I
got. They're not cute, they're actually real people, like
these kind of people. They look like people, they don't
look like funny creatures or animals, but actual, real
people. They're similar to the kind of people I've used in
Firaskew, not funny ones. No, they're very beautiful
little German figures. Authenticity. If you want to get
into the childlike quality, heavens, Teresa of Avila was
probably one of the most childlike people you would ever
meet, as a power. After all, "the Lord says, 'Think like a
child." That's one of his major expressions, think as a
child, accept things as a child. But childlike, I don't
think I tried to do anything cute in this castle,
nothing. I wasn't interested in that. I wasn't interested
at all in injecting any of my own self into it at all. I
was completely detached from the whole creation. It was
just a matter of Saint Joseph's vision, her writing, and
the best way I could relate to that was through the images
that I could write down and build and put together within
that symbolism to make it work as a whole. That is the way
that it came out. I wasn't trying to do anything that
wasn't-- Nothing was added to it.
SMITH: Did you study some of the earlier religious
artists, like Giotto or Simone Martini, or those medieval
paintings, early renaissance paintings with multiple
stories within them?
WAGNER: Well, I used to enjoy looking at them in Europe,
the Italians and the Flemish especially, like [Hans]
Memling and [Roger] van der Weyden and [Lucas] van Leyden
and [Hubert and Jan] van Eyck and the great Flemish painter
[Robert] Campin. I just looked at them and enjoyed the
surrealism that they had within them. Most of them were
quite surreal, the Flemish especially, in their early
religious paintings. A tremendous amount of surrealism in
them. I used to walk into churches, and I always enjoyed
the old church art of the medieval period, and that sort of
relationship, and renaissance. I liked all the periods of
that art, but I wasn't trying to make that art. Even in
this piece, I wasn't trying to make that kind of art. It
was a matter of it just formed itself from the way I was
given the vision. I knew it was right, because I wanted to
relate not as a ball of mirrors, not as-- Well, anyway. I
didn't want to relate it to any of the images that had been
given to me by other people that I didn't feel really knew
what Teresa was all about. I really felt that I had to do
this, because she was a sixteenth-century Spanish woman
living in a medieval city, and I wanted it to feel like it
was walled and strong and beautiful and elegant and of that
kind of architecture. When Joseph showed it to me that
way, I was so happy with the way it was going to be.
SMITH: Where has the castle been exhibited?
WAGNER: Well, it's been to about every monastery of the
Carmelites in California. After all. Saint Teresa of Avila
was a Carmelite. In 1982 it was shown-- It had its first
showing at Saint Teresa of Avila Monastery down here in
Alhambra on Alhambra Road. It's a cloister. They had it
for two weeks within the cloister and I talked to all of
the cloistered nuns. There I talked to them behind the--
just talked to them through the closure, through the
grill. We took it from there to San Francisco, took it to
[the Monastery of] Cristo Rey in San Francisco, the
Carmelite monastery. I was allowed to go into the
monastery there with the sisters of the cloister. Nobody
gets in, but they said, "Gordon, you're a workman, like an
electrician or a plumber." So they let me come in. I sat
down with all the sisters in a circle, and we talked about
the castle. I left it there for about three weeks. The
archbishop was there, he saw it. Mother Teresa of
Calcutta, she saw it. Everybody saw it. Then I took it
over to the Pope Pius XII Room under the Saint Ignatius de
Loyola Church at USF [University of San Francisco] and
showed it to about 150 people, mostly poets and artists and
writers of North Beach, a lot of beat guys and a lot of
people I'd known in San Francisco, and three priests and
about six ladies that were just there, and a lot of
psychologists, and [Lawrence] Fixel and all that group of
people came. It was a wonderful evening.
TAPE NUMBER: XIII, SIDE TWO
MARCH 21, 1987
WAGNER: Mount Carmel in Oakville, that's a monastery for
men, Carmelite. It's a wonderful place up on a mountain
right by Oakville. If you know where Oakville is, it's
north of Napa, the wine country. It was there for about a
week, and then we took it down to the Carmelite cloister of
Marinwood, north of San Rafael. I gave three or four talks
there. I gave talks in all these places. Then we brought
it from there, from San Rafael, we took it down to Santa
Clara to the cloister there, which is one of the big
ones. These are all Carmelites. From that point we took
it down to Monterey, out where the Monastery Beach is, that
cloister where my friend Barry Masteller, and I were
talking to these ladies, and they wanted to have it for
about two weeks. So I said, "Where do you want it?"
They said, "Come on."
So Barry and I were carrying it through the cloister,
back through all these sisters. So I've been in quite a
few cloisters that not even priests can get into. In fact,
I was in the one there where the priest thanked me for
helping him or he would never have gotten into the place.
Virginia couldn't go in, no laity are allowed. So it was
an experience. Then we've had it all around here. We've
had it at Sacred Heart retreat house. We talked in all the
parishes. Saint Philip's, we had it right in the church
there with three hundred people. We've had it Just about
everyplace. Now it's been in Duarte, at the Santa Teresita
Carmelite Hospital for the last ten months. Next month
we're going to take it out of there and we're giving a talk
on April 26 at the Saint Ignatius Loyola Church in Highland
Park at six in the evening. From there I don't know what
will happen to it. Virginia wrote the book about it, and
she did a very good job of putting the book together. It's
called The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places. Everytime
we take it someplace, we sell more books. That's the way
we kind of get paid for our time. But the Carmelites paid
us; they would give us a couple hundred dollars to bring
it, and they'd buy the books, and they'd get people to buy
The best story of all that I can remember was in San
Francisco at Saint Ignatius Loyola. There was a priest
there from the Richmond District, the Saint Monica Church
on Geary [Boulevard], Monsignor Daniel Cahill. He got up
after the whole thing was over and told all my friends, he
said, "You know, I'd like to tell all you people, if I
could get something across to my people in my parish like
Gordon does to you, I ' d be the happiest man in the world.
I love this man," and he threw his arms around me. He is
the father confessor and celebrates the mass for Mother
Teresa of Calcutta's nuns on Church Street in San
Francisco, and he's telling me this. A man with that much
humility belongs in the seventh room.
When we got back from Oakville, he said, "Gordon, I've
got a surprise for you."
I said, "What's that?" He said, "Well, you come on
over • "
We came over and he hands me a check for a thousand
dollars. He'd made it out himself. He said, "It's not
from me, but it's from an anonymous person who heard your
talk at Saint Ignatius Loyola and thought that you would
like to have this to carry on with your work." A thousand
bucks, just handed it to us like that.
Those kinds of things were always happening to us
while we were traveling around with it. We spent about
almost six months traveling with it.
SMITH: I asked you earlier if you were a religious artist,
and you said no. But surely-- Well, The Interior Castle is
a work of religious art, right?
WAGNER: Yeah, definitely. Well, I never would classify
myself as a religious artist, but everybody else thought I
did religious things, you know, in my own symbols and
images in my assemblage work, you know, objects and
things. But I never really classified myself as anything
in the religious art.
SMITH: Have you done anything else besides The Interior
Castle that is explicitly devotional?
WAGNER: Early works, yeah, I think so. I did that one on
the crucifix with the spikes all around it; the Santo, I
call it. Some other little boxes and niches and things,
special things that I've given to Virginia as a present,
like the Nifio de Prague and one to Saint Christopher. Some
of those things. But it's not great art; I'm no master in
SMITH: The image of the ascent, that is something that
appears in other works of yours, the symbol of the ascent.
WAGNER: The ascent, yeah. Well, I think I've always had a
tendency to have things going upward. Very much of my work
has been that way in the past. Centering, the centering,
going up into the light. I think that all started way back
with the American Indian, going up, uplift from the center
from the earth up into the light. And through the
meditation, through the kundalini and through the Taoist,
through all of the different meditations, that's the
centering that goes up through the spine, right? Actually,
if you took The Interior Castle and put it into seven
different levels, you have the seven different chakras of
the body, right? You have the chakras. They're the same
vibrations and energies to get to the light. So you could
use the castle as the human form, which we are using.
because it's every person. It's the development stages,
every chakra, or his prayer, or whatnot to get to the
illumination, or God, within them or the God within the
Christian world. It's all part of the same. There's a
SMITH: The Interior Castle is the symbol of rebirth of the
soul, and you mentioned earlier that the period after you
went to Europe was a period of struggle and rebirth for
you. Was that struggle projected into The Interior Castle?
WAGNER: I think I'd already been through that rebirth.
You know, we can die several times in our lives and be
reborn again. Fortunately, if we are artists, we have that
privilege because that's the only way we keep going, or we
would die of boredom. These little rebirths that get you
going again for another five years are so nice to have,
otherwise you are just sitting in a stale situation with
the same thing all the time. It's nice to turn yourself
around and shake yourself all up and get rid of all the old
habits and patterns and start out with some other idea.
SMITH: There's another thing I wanted to ask you about,
which is, you mentioned that Teresa says, "Let the Lord
SMITH: And contemplative prayer. How does contemplative
prayer relate to dreams? Is there a relationship? Does
the the Lord tell you things through your dreams?
WAGNER: Not really, no. Although I'm sure that the Lord
is in your dreams, definitely. If you have a mind and a
heart and a body, purified and clean from all of the
contamination of the everyday world, and you're thinking
about the Lord, I think there's a possibility that He can
come to you in your dreams as well as at any minute.
Because when I start to work, the first thing I say is,
"Holy Spirit, come to me. Help me today. I don't know
what's going to happen, but let's have fun together."
That's the way I talk to him. We'll see what's going to
come. Sometimes nothing comes, and then all of a sudden
while I'm walking someplace, he lets me have it, there it
SMITH: I guess what I'm probing for is the relationship of
surrealism to your conception of the religious state and
divine communication. Is there a relationship?
WAGNER: Between surreal ism- -
SMITH: Between surrealism and religion.
WAGNER: Well, in one way there is, yeah, there is a
relationship. I think that the Gospel and especially the
Old Testament we use is probably one of the most surreal
stories-- No surrealist ever wrote any stories like that.
Pretty far out.
SMITH: You mean like Joshua stopping the sun?
WAGNER: Oh, everything like that, rivers and the Red Sea
opening up, constant. Blowing with mud and He created a
man. All these things are very, very, very surreal.
They're not real to the average, logical mind, or rational
mind, right? Anymore than they can accept God in the
tabernacle of the church as a living person with real eyes
and everything. The Catholic church only does that, no
other church does that. He's there. He's not a symbol of
there; He is there. Well, it's pretty hard for a lot of
rational people to get through this. Even priests have a
difficult time with it, so don't — But that's surreal
because it's irrational, and when something is irrational
it's surreal, you know. You either believe it or you don't
believe it. You have faith or you don't have faith. Or a
blind faith or a real faith. It's all stages of whether
you can accept it. Some days you can accept it, the next
day you can't. It doesn't matter. You grow, and the Lord
will test you. He will do all sorts of things to block
you, to get in your way, to tie you up, to give you some
humility and love, love of others. So if you're going into
the basic surrealist-- Every single surrealist of those
early days, it's funny, but as much as they were protesting
it, they were all Catholic, and they all died Catholics,
and they were all buried as Catholics although they
rebelled within it, which is a natural thing to do. We
naturally rebel. There is no one-- That's the thing I like
about the Catholic church, there is nobody in the Catholic
church that is pure, there is nobody that is not a
sinner. That's what I've had to go through with my
director, my spiritual director. He told me you can't run
a church without sinners anymore than you can run a
hospital without sick people. These other churches, some
of them have the idea that they don't sin. They don't
worry about confession; they don't do anything like this
because they don't sin, they're perfectly fine people, you
see. So we accept all those things: we accept sin, and we
accept love and we-- When you have that, no matter how
strong the person might be, like [Andre] Breton and [Erik]
Satie and [Yves] Tanguy and everybody else, when they died,
they all took extreme unction, they were all buried and had
the last rites. Although they talked against the church,
they went through it. They bought it because it was such a
powerful thing within their own minds and their
psychological workings. Then the conflict between this art
that was trying to put it down and everything else, their
own insides were torn up by it. And the ambivalence of
this thing-- So that made them very strong, because they
had faith, actually a blind faith underneath. They weren't
going very far, but they still had a faith to do what they
had to do. That gave them courage to do it, to be
surrealists, where if they hadn't had both of those things,
they would have stopped, you see. So I think in a movement
like that you have to have a lot of guts and a lot of
faith, because when everybody is against you-- Just like
the Catholic church, you've got to have a lot of guts, a
lot of faith to belong to the Catholic church, because
everybody hates you. That's the way life is. That's what
Christ says, "Everybody is going to hate you and hate
me." That's what He's taught, and we're used to it. We
know that's the way it is. So you don't go around hitting
your brother, you go around loving your brother. When he
smashes you in the head, you just smile and say, "That's
all right, thank you." That takes guts. And that's where
SMITH: After you finished The Interior Castle, what did
you move onto then? Were you doing any other works while
you were working on The Interior Castle?
WAGNER: No, nothing. For that whole year, I was just
right on it. No, I had finished the acrylics and the boxes
for my playing card series, so being interested in building
castles, I built the playing card castle. The Suit of
Pluses. That took a year to build after The Interior
SMITH: That's a big constructed piece as well, an
assemblage, a constructed assemblage?
WAGNER: It's a castle. It has a similar feeling to
Firaskew and The Interior Castle, only it's a card castle
all by itself. It stands about forty-eight inches high and
eighteen inches square. It's all full of illusions and
mirrors and rooms, and it takes in the whole suit of
SMITH: With that you completed your playing card series?
WAGNER: That completed my playing card series, and I've
never shown it. It's called "The Fool," that's the title
of the exhibition if it ever comes about, "The Joker."
SMITH: Of all four suits?
WAGNER: Right. I've proposed it to a couple of places,
and they're interested, but they never get together, you
never hear from them. I'm sure it will happen one day in
the near future, maybe in a year or two.
SMITH: Then what did you work on?
WAGNER: What year would we be talking about?
SMITH: 'Eighty-three, I think.
WAGNER: ' Eighty- three.
SMITH: You certainly-- A lot of your pun boxes were done--
WAGNER: Well, they were before.
SMITH: Well, Draw Up a Chair is '83.
WAGNER: No, these little ones here, the black and whites,
they were before the castle. Draw Up a Chair and some of
those things came after The Interior Castle. I was working
on those also during my playing card castle. These little
ones. Arcane and this one. And this Draw Up a Chair was
actually built at the same time as the first room over on
the corner, that building, in Firaskew. Because in the
bottom room of that building is a "Draw Up a Chair, " and
that's a spin-off from this box. So the two related at
that moment. I built those in San Pedro, in Tony
Portillo's house and studio in '83, the summer, when I was
staying down there for the summer.
SMITH: When did you do the Marine series?
WAGNER: I've been working on the Marine series, I guess,
for years. Whenever a good one comes up I keep adding to
them. I'd like to really have a show sometime, the whole
set of them. Probably, I started the first of the Marine
series in 1975 with The Prairie Schooner sinking on the
prairie, on the desert. A sixteen-mast schooner.
SMITH: And then there's The Room.
WAGNER: The Room is more recent, that was 1985. It's
falling off [the picture frame]. I've done quite a few
since that time.
SMITH: Is that symbolist art?
WAGNER: The symbolists? I don't think so, do you? I
wouldn't call it symbolism. I think it's more surreal than
symbolist, because the juxtaposition-- The room with its
ship falling out of the painting that's tipped on its side
and letting the water run out of it is not exactly
symbolist. Do you think so?
SMITH: Well, it can be read from a symbolistic viewpoint.
WAGNER: Yeah, but it has no underlying meaning, though,
except that I've been into people's houses in my life with
rooms like that, with cards thrown down and beer cans and
whatnot and things on the floor, trophies.
SMITH: The ship doesn't have a specific symbolic meaning
for you, then?
WAGNER: I don't think it does. It probably does in all of
them, basically, because I love ships. There's something
about them. I'm always putting them into strange
juxtapositions where they don't belong or doing things that
they wouldn't have to normally be doing. I've always been
a lover of ships. I'm a shipwatcher, a professional
shipwatcher. I could watch them for years; I never get
tired of going to the harbor and sitting down by the water
and just watching them go by. It's a very contemplative
SMITH: In Christian art, the ship is one of the symbols
for the soul.
WAGNER: That's right, hangs in the church, a bark or
sometimes a full-size ship.
SMITH: But in your case, in these works, you're not--
WAGNER: I never thought of them from that aspect until I
got into Christianity, being a fallen-away pagan, you know,
six years or something. I'd seen them in churches, but I
never connected them to anything. I thought they just
didn't know what to do with them, so they hung them up on
the ceiling. [laughter] Some of them in Sweden are
incredible, whole galleons and barks and hanging down from
the church, the beams, on chains. Incredible.
SMITH: Let's move on to another subject, which is your
getting involved with Angel's Gate Cultural Center. When
did you start working with Angel ' s Gate?
WAGNER: Nineteen eighty- two.
SMITH: Had it already been formed, organized?
WAGNER: I was one of the first artists invited to submit
some sort of a proposal to be there, to have a space to
teach, only. That was through Honor Kirk, who was the
director at the time, who's now the director of the
Aquarius Gallery in Cambria Pines--Cambria, I guess they
call it. She phoned me up and asked me if I would be
interested in this. Another friend of mine I'd known a
long time, Nick Kappes, who is a photographer, he told me
about it a year before it happened. He said, "We're going
to try and do something like they did in Fort Mason with
the old military barracks and kind of develop it from that
aspect." Fort Mason in San Francisco.
So I said, "Well, it sounds interesting."
"Well," he said, "Just make out a proposal, whatever
it is you would like to do." Just teaching at that time.
So I made out a proposal to teach senior citizens. I
always thought that the senior citizens should have more of
a chance than they do to express themselves, in more ways
than just piddling around with cutting out flowers and
making crafts and being passed off as old people without
any imagination, just dumped in a little class to make
pretty little things. I thought that I could probably
bring out something of the senior citizen that they really
wanted to tell me. Because every one of them had a story
inside of them to relate, and I was going to work it out
through their dreams, and through their poetry, and through
writing, and through building things, and through drawing
and painting, and go beyond the artsy-craftsy senior
citizens programs set up in seniors centers for funny
little old people who have nothing to do with themselves.
I thought that would be a good program, so I wrote it all
out that way. And nothing happened. I went down there,
and there wasn't a soul for the class. Not one senior
citizen came. There was no one. [laughter] It was as
dead as a mackerel. So that class never manifested into
anything. That was the end of that.
I was teaching at that time in the Palos Verdes
Community Arts Center. I had students there, around ten
students, faithful students, in assemblage. There was a
little bit of tension going on up there among people at
that particular moment. I always had to fight to get a
class there, because if you didn't have the students, you
didn't have the class. I got sort of tired of-- One woman
by the name of Pamela French was my faithful getter of the
students. Everytime I'd have a class, she'd have to go out
and call them all and work at it and get them to come. So
I got pretty fed up with that way of teaching, so I decided
to try it at Angel's Gate. I said, "Well, there's a big
space there and we can work. Why don't we try it and see
what happens, see if we can't get something going?" So
they all came, the whole group, and they loved it up there.
The atmosphere was better, and we had a big, big room where
we could really work and do things. The people there were
all very cooperative, and it was a community. We had our
own gallery going; it was a small gallery at that time. We
had different exhibitions by different artists, but in a
different way at that time. Honor Kirk was the sort of a
director who, you never knew exactly what she was doing.
She meant well. She was a painter herself. Finally, the
whole thing came to the point where Honor left. She was
offered a house in Cambria, so she moved from Portuguese
Bend, where she lived, and she turned it over to Bobbie
[Roberta M.] Miller, who's the current director. Well,
Bobbie didn't want the job. She was a painter and she just
wanted to paint, but she said she would try and see what
she could do to help. Everything that Bobbie did, well,
people started to be irritated by what she was doing,
because she was trying to change things around slowly to
make an art center out of it. A lot of the people were
very disappointed that were the original group that were
working there, because she was saying things to them that
could bother them, you know.
SMITH: Bother them personally or bother them over the
WAGNER: Yeah, personally, over the issues.
SMITH: Well, what were the issues that people were arguing
WAGNER: Well, they had a lot of problems there because
there was a young group that had a different idea of how
Angel's Gate should be run than the way Bobbie was running
it. They broke off and formed an art association, which to
me is death. Any art association, as far as I'm concerned,
just the word "art association" is death to me. It's a bad
SMITH: By "young group" you mean people in their twenties?
WAGNER: Yeah, that had recently come to Angel's Gate.
They knew everything there was to know; they were very
SMITH: Art school graduates?
WAGNER: They were college graduates. There were actors
and there were actresses and painters and potters and
people of that nature. They were doing all sorts of things
that Bobbie didn't like, the way they were operating.
SMITH: Like what?
WAGNER: Underground things, underhanded things, behind her
back. Talking against her, and that sort of thing. They
took it up with the city council in San Pedro. They went
to Flores, Joan [Milke] Flores, and created a lot of
problems. They convinced Joan Flores that Bobbie wasn't
doing a good job. I called up Joan Flores, and I said,
"What's the trouble here anyway?"
She said, "Well, Bobbie Miller has got to get her act
together. She's too emotional. We're not going to renew
your contract on that land unless you get something
together up there."
The way it was, the land was leased for three years
without paying anything, but it was just the idea they'd
give us the land for three more years that belonged to the
parks department, the actual land. But Bobbie's smarter
than all that, and she's a real fighter. She found out
that it didn't belong to the parks department, it actually
belongs to the [United States] Department of Interior. So
she started working with the Department of Interior and
found out all these things. They said, "No matter what
happens, you're going to stay here. You're doing a
SMITH: Well, were there differences over the kinds of
classes that should be taught?
WAGNER: No, never anything over classes. No, nothing like
SMITH: Differences over the kinds of programs that would
WAGNER: No, personalities over the theater, for instance.
They had live theater, and the actors and the dancers, they
created all sorts of ego problems, narcissistic ego
problems that occur with dancers and actors. It's just
their temperament to do that. If they can't get the money
they want or the way they want it, they complain and rebel,
and they quit. All these great boring type of people who
are not doing that much, you know what I'm talking about?
They think they're really important. This center was not
based on that sort of personality. It was a place for
artists to come and work and have a place to work and teach
and help the community. It was built for the community to
have classes, free classes, for children and for grownups
and for anybody who wanted to come to extend their
expression. It wasn't set up on a program to set it up as
a commercial theater and organize it in that direction.
This was the way it was going. The board of directors and
Bobbie, they all had a fight with this big group, I
remember. It was a lot of nasty words thrown around in the
meeting. Finally, they all left, they disappeared, that
whole group. We got back to normal again, back to where
we're going. Currently, we have about fifty-five studios
working with artists, dancers, writers, poets, music, and a
gallery that is a community gallery. It is not a cultural
center gallery, it's a community gallery.
SMITH: What do you mean?
WAGNER: Well, there's a difference. A community gallery
is like in a university or-- San Pedro has no other
community gallery, it is the only community gallery within
that part of town. There isn't any other place, so that
gallery is-- It has now built itself up to the point where
it's recognized as a community gallery. If you said art
association, they will not list you in any newspaper; or a
culture center, you will not get a listing in any paper.
But if you're a community art gallery, then you're
listed. That's for Art News, Art Week and the [Los
Angeles] Times, or any other paper. Then they cover you.
As soon as the words "community gallery" come on it, then
you ' re covered .
SMITH: I don't see what the difference is in terms of the
meaning between a cultural center and a community art
WAGNER: They have a cultural center, but they have a
conununity art gallery within the cultural center. That is
separate. Here is a community gallery, but the art center
is all around it-- the cultural center. That took time; it
took a lot of history to put together slides and
backgrounds and clippings to send to these people, to the
California Arts Council, to make them realize that we do
have an important community gallery and that it's the only
community art gallery in the whole south end of Los
Angeles. There's no other one. There's college galleries,
but there's not another community gallery. So that's very
SMITH: You teach classes there still. What are you
WAGNER: I teach assemblage. It wasn't until, oh, three
years ago that they asked me if I would like to have a
studio to work in. So they gave me the studio. If you
work and teach in the studio, you get it absolutely free.
SMITH: Do you get paid for teaching?
WAGNER: Yeah, that's true, I do. I get paid for teaching
and I have a free studio.
SMITH: Are you involved in the decision making at Angel's
WAGNER: I'm on the board of directors at present; I've
just come on it. I have always been involved in the
decision making, because Bobbie always comes to me with
what do I think of this? or what should we do about that?
Especially on exhibitions and gallery operations, because
at one time I was sort of in charge of hanging all the
exhibitions and putting them together for Angel's Gate.
Paul Bouchard, myself, and Lieve Jerger, who is a Belgian
lacemaker, a little blonde over there, and a few others, we
kind of took care of that, to curate exhibitions and try to
get high-quality work from the very beginning. We never
let it go into the amateur state. Then they did have a
curator. Penny [Penelope] Cornwall, who was a paid curator,
for a while. They had to let her go because the funding
wasn't enough for her. Well, now they have no curator, but
there are shows coming up where they will be having a
curator again. There are several good shows coming up in
the future, one with Ed Lau and his group is next. Then
there's going to be a photography and poets show, "Poets
Who Make Art." There's one coming up in 1988 which will be
a California impressionists, abstract impressionists, of
the fifties, the forties and fifties, which will be just on
Southern California artists. Some of the old ones will be
in that show, like Phil Dike and--I guess we'll have to
include Millard Sheets. [laughter] Roger [Edward] Kuntz
and a lot of the ones who were around for a long time.
SMITH: Has Angel's Gate done historical shows like that
WAGNER: You mean as a retro- -
SMITH: Well, not retrospective.
WAGNER: Sort of a documentary of certain periods?
WAGNER: No, we've never tried it. It was my idea. I
presented it to them. Arnold Schiffrin will be the curator
of the exhibition. He knows a lot about gathering things
from museums from that period, and he already has
practically the whole exhibition together. They want to do
a catalog through the Arts Council.
SMITH: Will any of your pieces be in it?
WAGNER: No, I don't think so. I could have them in. They
want me to be in it, but I don't think I want to be in
it. Maybe. [laughter]
SMITH: You also recently curated a show at Barnsdall
[Junior Art Center], the "Toying Around" show. What was
the concept behind that?
WAGNER: Well, actually, it was the lady who-- It was very
interesting, because Harriet Miller was the one I was
working with, she was my director at the Palos Verdes
Community Arts Center when I left and took everything to
Angel's Gate. I didn't think I'd ever see her again. We
got along all right. She was a nice lady, I guess. I
liked her at that time, but she had a lot of strange ideas.
She was always nice to me. I will never quite understand
how she could be living in a condominium that is on top of
the house where I was born in Redondo Beach. So she became
the director of the Barnsdall Junior Art Center. When I
was asked to teach at Barnsdall Junior Art Center, she was
kind of surprised to see me there in the beginning. But I
was there one summer, and then a couple of more times, and
then she called me one day and said, "Marty Walsch has left
the center. Would you curate an exhibition for me called,
' Toying Around ' ? "
I said, "Well, what do you think we should do?"
"'Toying Around,' we want to do something funny,
something really amusing." And she said, "Marty Walsch has
some of the artists already, but maybe you could get a few
more • "
So I called all the artists that she had, and I found
out who they were, Dave [David] Quick and Jim [James]
Jenkins and some of those people. Then 1 called up Garner,
Phil Garner, and a few of these kind of characters. We put
this show together and it was-- I wanted to make it feel
like it was a funhouse or a place of Joy, like when I was a
kid, a penny-arcade-like feeling, with moving kinetic
sculpture, and painting the whole place like all skies, and
little doors you walk through, and the walls all cockeyed
like an old funhouse. I wanted to give that feeling that
you're kind of toying around in there.
SMITH: All assemblages in that show pretty much?
WAGNER: Yeah, they were all three-dimensional art, kinetic
and otherwise, static. Some of them were quite humorous, I
thought. A lot of humor. It had the largest attendance of
any exhibition that they'd ever had at Barnsdall Junior Art
Center. They were coming in droves. We got a very good
review on it in the Times.
TAPE NUMBER: XIV, SIDE ONE
MARCH 23, 1987
SMITH: Well, we ended last time with The Interior Castle
[also known as The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places] and
some of the boxes, completing the playing cards series and
some of the boxes that you did after The Interior Castle.
What were your next projects in '84, '85, '86?
WAGNER: That's when I started one of my major works, sort
of an epic piece.
SMITH: Which is?
WAGNER: It's called Firaskew, not knowing what that word
means except that it came in my dreams.
SMITH: The sound, the word itself, or the image?
WAGNER: The actual word, just in my dreams. Many
different dreams of Firaskew would take me to these lonely
places and cities of my inner traveling, night journeys.
There was always a sign that pointed the way, either on a
beer can or on a marker on the road or on a cliff, an arrow
pointed: "Firaskew." I would get there and it always
turned into some fantastic city. Sometimes I'd go by
train, sometimes I'd go by car, sometimes streetcar,
walking, automobiles, through deserts. All sorts of ways I
got to Firaskew, different kinds of vehicles.
SMITH: Does the name have any particular meaning?
WAGNER: It has no meaning whatsoever except what it says
on the sign in my dreeuns. I looked it up and tried to find
out a derivation, and there's nothing.
SMITH: No relationship to--
WAGNER: No relationship to anything that I know of, unless
it's fear and askew, but that doesn't really make it to
me. It's just a word that came. People say, "What does it
mean?" Well, it doesn't mean anything.
SMITH: The Firaskew that you've constructed is an amusement
park. Is that all there is to Firaskew? Isn't it a larger
place than that?
WAGNER: Well, this particular construction of Firaskew not
only goes to the dream, but it goes to my childhood, my
boyhood, when I was quite involved in and loved the old
amusement parks. Even today, if I am anyplace that I see
an amusement --not like Magic Mountain or anything, I mean
old ones, old roller coasters, old buildings, weathered,
along the sea preferably. There's a certain wonderful
mystery that happens to piers along the sea, full of
goodies like that, mists and fogs, the white iron against
the gray sea. There's something beautiful about it. So
this actual construction was things that I remembered from
my childhood, some of the things that really were
outstanding in my mind. I adapted those into the piece. I
can always remember walking down the strand when I was a
boy of about six or seven years old. Moonstone Beach in
Redondo [Beach] . I used to go down there on Sundays with
all the rest of us. We had bottles and we'd fill the
bottles up with moonstones and wait for the tourists to
come down in the afternoon on the streetcar. In those days
it was called the "green cars." The balloon trip went from
Los Angeles down through the beaches and over to San Pedro
and Long Beach and back up to L.A. again as a loop. We
would sell moonstones for five cents apiece to the tourists
and make a pretty good day at that. That Moonstone Beach
strand that we walked on, I used to love it, right on the
sea. You went under the old white structures of the roller
coaster, and underneath that was the curio shop. I always
looked in the windows, and I loved to see all these things
they had, stones and polished gems and chips and models and
shells. They always fascinated me when I was a kid. I
remember I always was very fascinated by maritime museums,
where they had ships and ship parts and models, all of
these sort of things of the sea. I thought it would be
necessary to have my own maritime museum in the piece. The
one thing that I remember very clearly, and I used to laugh
because we used to go on it all the time, was the Tunnel of
Love, where the swan came down the chute of water, and you
went into this-- Usually, if you could find a nice
girlfriend to take with you, you might even be brave enough
to hold her hand, you know, in these dark chasms. They were
sort of a romantic place. They didn't smell very good, the
water was kind of stagnant in there, but you got used to
it. It was dark, and the swans were big white swans that
were pulled by a conveyor through the water down through
the paths. So I incorporated the Tunnel of Love in this
piece, starting in one building over there, under the
farmer's daughter's card room, and moving around through
the whole interior of this Firaskew in chasms where the
people are waving at you from time to time as they go
by through the maritime museum and down the hall of the
Another thing that I can remember very deep in my
memories was the house of mirrors. People are in there all
tangled up in the glass, confused, not knowing which way to
go, banging into the walls. Some people were panicking,
other people to the point of exhaustion, others were
laughing and hoping they'd find the right way out. Up on
the roof of the house of mirrors was the laughing girl, who
was a woman who sat there all day and went ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-
ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. You looked down below, and you saw all
these products of what she was laughing at floundering
around in this house of mirrors. It was all exposed to the
public on the outside so you could see what was there and
you could watch them. It was an interesting aquarium of
people. So the house of mirrors is the one on the other
side over there. There were always ballrooms for
dancing. The place where I used to dance was the Hut in
Hermosa [Beach] and the Mandarin Ballroom in Redondo and
the Casino Gardens in Ocean Park. All of that. So I have
a ballroom up on the penthouse, but I have a ball team in
it instead of a dance pavilion.
SMITH: A baseball team.
WAGNER: A ball team, yeah, in the ballroom.
SMITH: Does Firaskew-- Since it comes out of dreams, is
there a particular message? Is there a dream message
that's involved in this construction?
WAGNER: I think the message that I'm trying to convey here
is that practically every human being loves the structures
of older buildings. There are so many of them that have
been removed, it's almost impossible to find any like this.
They love the romantic side of it. All these great
amusement piers in the country, in Europe, they were all
designed like palaces of gaiety and a place for joy and
laughter and happiness. They were never built for sadness
or morbidity. They knew nothing about electronics or
plastics, so everything was sort of created as an art form;
the paintings, the buildings, were almost like American
SMITH: When you were in England, did you go to Brighton
WAGNER: I loved Brighton Pier.
SMITH: How did it compare to Hermosa, to what you grew up
WAGNER: To Redondo?
SMITH: To Redondo, yes.
WAGNER: A different kind of elegance.
SMITH: In what way?
WAGNER: Well, it's very Victorian, the Brighton Pier,
elegant. It was all made of steel, the ironwork and the
filagree, and not wood, like our piers were. They had
steel pilings and ornate curlicued pier railings. It was a
different feeling. I remember one time being told that the
Brighton Pier, the Palace Pier, it was called — There were
two piers in Brighton, the West Pier and the Palace Pier.
The West Pier, when I was visiting there, was closed during
the winter, but the Palace was open. So I decided to-- I
didn't really want to go on it because I thought it might
damage my imagery and all the love I had for piers, and it
might destroy some kind of an inner feeling I had for this
sort of architecture and this kind of condition. I liked
to look at it from a distance, but not get too close to it,
because sometimes when one becomes too familiar with
something the whole romance is gone. So I went on the
pier, but I went for a particular reason. I went to see
some boxes that a man built. They were boxes that wound
up, they were kinetic boxes, and if you put in a shilling,
it would do things. All sorts of comical boxes. Some of
them weren't so comical, really, they were rather morbid,
like the guillotine and the swinging blade and the
hangman. But there were others that were more humorous.
So I decided I'd like to go on this pier to see those at
the end. So I took a very long morning and just took my
time and built up all sorts of anxieties about it, and I
even stopped for coffee. When I finally arrived at the end
of the pier, I walked all the way around this end, because
it's a huge beautiful facade: archways and columns, white
and gray, standing out there against the sea. It was such
a strong inner thing coming into me that I just sat down
for about half an hour just to absorb it all. All these
old piers and all these memories and all these times of my
youth all came back through me, sitting on this bench.
There was an outside theater on the back of the pier and I
sat down. The wind was blowing so cold, I was almost
rigid. So I took my time and walked around, and I saw the
fortune-tellers, and I saw the cockles and whelks. But
they were closed, everything was closed. I went into the
pub, and I said, well, this is open, one thing I can-- I
sat down and I had a beer. I was sitting there and the
gentleman across the way from me told the barmaid, [with
British accent] "Give John the Baptist another drink." I
didn't pay much attention, then all of a sudden I realized
he was talking about me. "What brings you here today,
I said, "Well, I came out here to look for those boxes
that wind up. "
He said, "That's too bad, I just put them away for the
winter. They're all stored." He had an assistant with
him: "That right, mate?" And the assistant bowed and
nodded his head. So I missed them. He said, "You come
back in the summer, I'll have them."
So I did, I went back in the summer. He told me that
some rich collector, lady from New York bought the whole
set of them for a million dollars, so I never saw them.
But I really never regret going on the Palace Pier, because
the imagery was so wonderful. It went right back to my
youth. I felt that I was there, walking through the old
board walls and the holes in the fences. Those old piers
were built-- I was so used to stain boards and, like,
stains on the walls, and here they were partially painted,
and it was peeling off. One Englishman was sitting on the
pier there. I said, "This is a very interesting pier,
isn't it?" And he said, "I don't know about that. I think
it needs a little paint. Seems to be sort of chipped. I
don't know, it's a good pier to fish off of." I figured,
well, that kind of a place is for people like me, who love
that particular nostalgia of that moment, and then the rest
is for people who like to buy snow cones and whelks and
cockles, ride the Dodge 'em cars, get their fortunes told,
I suppose. And then there are those kind of people who
just like the pier to fish off of. Really, the Redondo
Pier was to fish off of, too, so it had both things, a
fishing part and an amusement part. The old pier was built
like European architecture, you see.
SMITH: In Redondo.
WAGNER: In Redondo. The buildings were-- They weren't
built like now, it was all built like the old European
architecture. Not like POP; they really cheapened that
one, putting in all that sort of Disneyland feeling to it,
the Pacific Ocean Park. The original Ocean Park Pier was a
great pier, and it had-- I loved it. The Venice Pier was a
beautiful pier, there were lots of things going on on the
Venice Pier. The funhouse was one of the big events,
twenty- five cents all day.
SMITH: In terms of Firaskew, have your English drawings,
your Under the Crown series, your playing card series, your
experiences at Brighton, have they been fed into this at
WAGNER: I would say so, in quite a few places. Especially
in the railroad station over here. It's like Waterloo
Station, or some of the great railway stations in England
where they go forever in both directions, like Waterloo
Station, Marylebone, Paddington, they're big stations.
King's Cross. This station is very important to me,
because I'm a very, very ardent lover of old railroads and
the sounds of trains in the night. Although these trains
within this piece are back to my squiggle trains again,
like through my early boxes of my train dreams. I've
incorporated these squiggle trains, the horse- locomotive,
inside the railroad station. If you notice, the trains are
part horse and part locomotive, some of those images from
previous dreams, from the seventies.
A lot of the architecture is, I would say, British,
Victorian, in concept without really working at it or
trying to make a model of a Victorian building. But the
feeling of the towers and the roofs and things, the window
details and the wood on the sides and the old planks, it is
British in a lot of ways. And also, it is British because
I used bricks, you know, minibricks in the railroad
stations and up in the details in the buildings, I leave a
place for just bricks.
SMITH: Many of the objects are things that you bought or
found. When do you decide to build something and when do
you decide to use something that you can get at a store?
WAGNER: When I can find something for-- When I'm working
with railroads, for instance, I make my own locomotives and
make all of the station parts, all of the platforms and the
stairs and all of that. But people, tiny people, they have
them in railroad model shops--like the Whistle Stop down
here, where you can buy them, little people that fit the
gauges of the railways that you want. That's why I might
use them in the railroad stations, people waiting for
SMITH: Then you have the Dungeons and Dragons toys that
WAGNER: Yeah, those are things I found somewhere. I don't
know exactly where I found those, but I found them one day
on the street, just thrown away. I thought they would be
wonderful to adopt to the corners and towers of old
buildings, like figures, you know, like many buildings have
sculpture up on the top of them, you know.
SMITH: The windows on the chapel, did you draw those
WAGNER: Yes. The stained glass windows, yeah, I did
SMITH: From your own design, or are they stenciled off
WAGNER: They were kind of a composite, a little of each so
they would fit into the windows.
SMITH: Then you've also used trompe I'oeil within the
piece. Is there a particular function for the trompe-
I'oeil in this?
WAGNER: Yeah, I think so. I enjoy trompe I'oeil,
especially here in the church, where you are looking down
the aisle of the church on the top of the pool hall.
Incidentally, the pool hall has sharks swimming around in
the swimming pool. They're the pool sharks. The pool room
is above the railroad station, and on top of the pool hall
is the church. In the very back of the church, over the
altar, there is Mary. But Mary is very deep, and people
say they look around the back, there's no Mary, she's not
there. It's a nice illusion. She's way over in another
tower, above the curio store on the ship that's going down
in the whirlpool there. Through the window here, there's a
ship going down a whirlpool. Look straight in, straight in
this window. I like that idea of making them wonder
exactly where it's coming from. Then I have one here in
the curio store where you are looking down the hall of the
curio store and the swans from the Tunnel of Love are
coming at you way down the hall. And the dog in front. Go
around and look in the Tunnel of Love, and down that
hallway you see a dog. So those kinds of things twisted
around a little bit so people wonder what's going on. Then
I like to do things like the ship here, on top of the
marine museum, actually going through the building from one
side to the other with the engine in the room inside.
SMITH: Are there going to be any sequels to Firaskew or
additions to it?
WAGNER: It's possible, it's possible. I may do another
one one day. When I get the — I didn't think I'd ever do
this one. I started it in San Pedro with one building, the
one with the man with the pencil, holding the pencil on the
drawing that says, "Draw up a chair." Up above it is a man
riding on a rabbit, a cowboy on a rabbit, called "How To Be
a Rabbit Puncher." That was the first building, and I
didn't think maybe I would ever get to doing another one of
these things. Then I made a sketch one day, and I got it
and said, "This is going to take me a long time to do this
thing." So I just started and took my time, and I built
one building at a time. I had a general idea how it was
all going together from the concept of the drawing, just to
sketch it, but I didn't know when or how it would go
together exactly, just the ideas and picking out a few
things, like railroad stations, squiggle trains, the marine
museum, the curio store, the hall of mirrors, and that sort
of thing. To get the feeling that I had when I used--
These are all symbols of what I remember on the pier when I
was a boy. A lot of the fantasy that appears here is also
coming out of the dream.
SMITH: Again, the miniaturization is very important to the
effect. Could you make this larger? A very common thing
now is the building of environments, so one could imagine
this being built on a larger scale that people could go
WAGNER: I could build these things as high as the high
rises downtown, if you wanted them built that way. They
could take these things and make huge cities out of them.
Sure, it could be done. Full-size locomotives, full-size
boats, people walking all along the pier; it wouldn't be
any problem. I wouldn't want to do it, but if somebody
wanted to build it, it would be a wonderful project.
SMITH: So if you could build something that people could
move into, an environmental thing, you would do that, then.
WAGNER: Yeah, sure.
SMITH: When you do a piece like this, a construction like
this, it raises the question, what is it for? In the sense
that when you do your assemblages and your boxes, they can
go to galleries and they get sold, they hang in somebody's
house or they hang in a museum. What happens with a piece
like this? Is there a market for a piece like this?
WAGNER: I have no idea. I had never thought about it.
But I'm sure that if some museum wanted to buy it, they
could make a nice space for it and put it in a glass case
where you could walk around it. It could be done just as
easily as showing something else.
SMITH: But if you put it in a glass case, you would miss
three-quarters of the effects, wouldn't you?
WAGNER: I don't think so, not if it was close. I think
you could still catch most of it. I think so. But I never
worried about what to do with it. Because I never think
about any of that; I never built anything for what's going
to happen to it. My whole philosophy is I build things for
the joy and love of what's happening at that moment. What
happens afterward I'm detached from. What's going to
happen to anything? What's going to happen to The Interior
Castle? What ' s going to happen to my playing card castle
[The Suite of Pluses]? They're not commercial ventures,
you know. They're not like prints or paintings.
SMITH: In an earlier interview with you that was done in
the newspaper, you make a distinction between collective
dreams and archetypal dreams. I was wondering if you
could-- Do you remember that? That was in the sixties, in
a newspaper in Oregon. Do you remember making that
WAGNER: Well, actually, I think what I'm saying is that
archetypal dreams are things that are related directly to
me in my own direction and what I'm up to right now. It's
giving me a message through the labyrinths of where I am in
my work. I use a lot of archetypal images throughout all
of my work.
SMITH: What do you mean by archetypal?
WAGNER: Well, repetition. A roller coaster is an
archetypal symbol. My trains are archetypal symbols. My
walls and textures of buildings and my arches and
checkerboards, all those things are my archetypal
symbols. But if I see a bunch of people standing on the
back of a Mack Bulldog truck wondering where to go, or
being unloaded off a ship with a lot of cows, or a lot of
people involved in a dream that I don't even--that doesn't
even belong to me, I'm sure, I call that collective
dreaming. It's not part of my archetypal images at all.
It has nothing to do with me. It's like a newsreel. I'm
looking at somebody else's dream. I belong to the Society
for the Restoration of Lost Dreams, where we're allowed to
buy, sell, lease, mail back to people, dreams. Or we can
collect dreams, like lucid dreams, archetypal dreams,
collective dreams, wet dreams, any kind of dreams. We can
buy and sell those dreams, or we can just mail them off.
I'm a P.H.D., Professional Head Dreamer, in the Society for
the Restoration of Lost Dreams. Lukman Glasgow, he's
actually the executive administrator. D. Ream is the
president. The last big meeting we had was about ten years
ago in Eagle Rock, under the rock. We had the society of
lost dreams, and Kenneth [J.] Atchity-- A whole lot of us
belong to the organization. Our secretary was a big
chimpanzee, who was typing the whole time at the table.
[laughter] So when I say "collective dreams," I always
feel they don't belong to me, in my way of putting them.
SMITH: How do they get into your head? Is it from
watching television or what?
WAGNER: How it got there?
SMITH: Yeah, how it got there.
WAGNER: I have no idea. A lot of my dreams are like
watching television or watching the news or something.
They're cut, sharp, direct dreams that come right through
to me with a story or a visual approach that I can use in
my work, you know.
SMITH: Could you tell me about your involvement with
WAGNER: The magazine?
WAGNER: Well, it started in 1978 with Kenneth Atchity at
Occidental College and Marsha Kinder, USC [University of
Southern California] now.
SMITH: She was at Occidental.
WAGNER: I had known these people through the California
Quarterly, which was a poetry magazine that came out that
Atchity was the editor of. He'd use some of my works in
there, poems and pictures of boxes and things. So Marsha
called me up and said they were going to do a dream
journal, and she wondered if I would be interested in
submitting some dreams. So she came over to my house in
Silver Lake, and I read her about five dreams. She said,
"That's all I need to know. Let's take them all right
now." So that's when it started. My dreams were
published; the first dreams that were published were the
railroad dreams, my squiggle train dream. Then I became a
member of the advisory board and still am a member.
SMITH: Do you attend meetings?
WAGNER: There isn't any meeting.
SMITH: Do they submit material for you to review?
WAGNER: Yeah, I do too. If I find someone that I really
want to submit, that I like their dreams or whatever
they're doing, well, I send it to either Ken Atchity or to
The last one I sent in was a dream called the
"Laughing Girl," with a drawing from a Mexican series in
the cemetery from one of my nightmares. Well, I got a
letter from Ken Atchity saying that he wanted to publish
it, but he thought he would need a commentary on the dream,
because how could I write-- He would like to know the dream
rather than how I created the story around the dream. So I
wrote back to him and said that I didn't create the story
around the dream, it was actual recall. All I did was get
up in the morning and write down exactly what happened in
the dream without any altering of the dream. Well, while
I'm calling him, writing him that letter, I get another
letter from Marsha Kinder at USC saying she wanted to
publish the "Laughing Girl" at the same time in Dreamworks,
so both of them grabbed it. It was passed on to her,
apparently. And I said, "Yeah, but they want a
She said, "Gordon, you don't need a commentary. When
you write dreams, they're direct experiences, there's no
reason for you to have a commentary."
Well, I did write a commentary, and the commentary's a
very good one. But it had to do with-- After I had the
dream, then I went back and wrote the commentary related to
the different archetypal images, again, that had appeared
in my life to make that dream possible, you see. Roller
coasters and the penny arcade and the house of mirrors and
the celluloid windmills and all those things that I --and
death, they were all there, my life was all in that dream.
So that's what I mean by a pure dream that ties together
where you are; it's not about some remote people over here
that could be in somebody else's dream.
SMITH: Do archetypal dreams have a religious connotation?
WAGNER: Most of mine don't. No, I don't think so. Well,
I imagine if you were a good psychologist, you could
probably make one out of it, but I can't. A lot of my
dreams are to defeat--were actually defeating my fear of
death, you know. They were helping me to destroy that
fear. Through those dreams, and then those dreams were
actually manifested. By doing that I got rid of that fear.
SMITH: I wanted to ask you a very broad question, which
is, do you feel there's an artists' community in Southern
WAGNER: Well, if you call-- How many square miles is Los
SMITH: Five hundred, or thereabouts, more or less.
WAGNER: Well, if it's classified as five hundred square
miles, there's an artists' community, yeah, because
everybody is so far apart, you know. There's communities
in each town; like there's a community in San Pedro,
there's a community in Pasadena, there's one in Santa
Monica, Venice. But these communities very seldom ever see
each other unless it's in an exhibition together. You
never know what the other artist is doing. Our city is not
built for Sohos and places of that nature, where all the
artists hang out. In fact, I think it would be very
difficult to establish an artists community in Los Angeles
at the present time, due to the fact that wherever artists
go and get set up as a community, the land developers move
in, triple their rent and kick them out. What they've
already done, they improve a little bit more and raise
their rents up. Artists really don't have much chance in
city at all of ever finding a community. It's very
difficult for an artist to live here. I don't know how
they do it. I don't know how half of them can afford these
expensive lofts, unless they've got some sort of a stipend
somewhere and still work as artists. Unless they just have
that and do other work, do things on weekends, teaching and
things of that nature. I wish we did have an artists'
community- I wish we could find one where we could have a
whole complex instead of senior citizens' complexes, an
artists' complex, like in New York, in Westbeth, where you
pay according to your income, that's the way the rentals
go. If they had that sort of thing here, I would certainly
be one of the first to belong to their organization. And,
you know, a central meeting place. Angel's Gate has that
sort of thing in San Pedro.
102-3, 217-18, 222, 419,
Ackerman, Sharon, 341
Ahlquist, Herbert, 361-63
Alexander, Robert, 282
America Needs Indians, 344-
45, 348, 351
Amusement parks, 8-9, 12-
14, 21-25, 442-43, 542-
45; accident on roller
coaster, 47-50; Brighton
Pier, 545-49; fear of,
Andreolas, Thom, 293-94
Angel ' s Gate Cultural
Center (San Pedro,
California), 105, 145-48,
236, 239, 244, 245, 246,
247, 279, 337, 380, 529-
Anhalt, Jacqueline, 361
Anhalt Gallery ( Los
Angeles), 326, 361
Ankrum Gallery ( Los
Apollinaire, Guillaume, 444
Apostolides, Alex, 342-43
Appel, Karel, 419
Aquarius Gallery (Cambria,
Archer Gallery (London),
Architektenhuis (Gent), 471
Art Institute of Chicago,
Artaud, Antonin, 215, 431
Artemis Galerij (Gent), 475
Artforum, 150, 342
Art in America, 150
Art International, 342
Artists Equity, 109-13
Art News, 342
Ashcan school, 102-3, 110
Asher, Betty, 188, 289-90
Asher Faure Gallery ( Los
Ashton, Dore, 457
Assemblage art, 98-101,
154-57, 163-64, 186-87,
265-67, 363-64; Mexican
influence on, 88, 168-69,
330; poetic and protest,
151-53. See also Index
of Gordon Wagner Works--
Assemblage Art; Box Art
Atchity, Kenneth J., 556-59
Automatic painting, 218,
Baccone, Frank, 62
Baggi, Niels, 327
Baker, Jim, 354
Banyakia, Thomas, 131, 132,
Barnes, Molly, 284, 361
Earnhardt, Gen, 455, 467,
Earnhardt, Raymond, 455
Earnsdall Junior Art Center
(Los Angeles), 332, 538,
Barrymore, John, Jr., 354
Bassler, Robert, 383
Baum (Jan) Gallery (Los
Bayne, Lucy, 285, 286
Bayne (Lucy) Gallery (Los
Bayne, Walter, 286
Bell, Larry, 210, 212
Bellows, George, 29, 34
Benefield, Pat, 112, 472
Bengston, Billy Al, 189,
Benton, Thomas Hart, 104
Berlant, Tony, 150, 198-99,
Berman, Eugene, 112
Berman, Wallace, 150, 198,
205-7, 278, 282
Bernhard, Ruth, 97
Berninghaus, Charles, 29
Bhajan, Yogi, 132, 352-57
Biberman, Edward, 438
Big Sur, California, 34,
41, 52, 53-54, 101-2
Binkley, Betty, 97
Bjttrn, Jan, 363
Blair, Camille, 281
Blake, Tom, 26
Bloom, Mark C. , 95
Blue Pelican Art Gallery
Blum, Irving, 190, 191
Blumenschein, Ernest, 29
Boggs, Katherine, 172
Bosch, Hieronymus, 413,
Bouchard, Paul, 537
Boucharie, Jules, 354
Box art, 292-95, 344, 376,
399, 401-405, 446;
constructed, 90-93, 333-
34, 392-97, 451-56, 472,
545; funk, 370, 410-11;
Mexican influence on,
324-29, 331-34, 381; pun,
397, 481-82, 490, 526.
See also Index of Gordon
Wagner Works--Box Art
Breton, Andre, 103, 259,
413, 414, 416, 431, 432-
33, 441, 457, 524
Brett, Dorothy, 366
Brice, William, 110
Brighton Pier (Brighton,
British Arts Council, 371
British Museum, 406
Brockman Gallery ( Los
Brueghel, Pieter, 413, 433
Brugger's Fine Arts
Forwarding Service, 296-
Buckley, Lord, 312-13
Buddhism, 63, 208, 218,
240, 331, 463-64, 511;
influence on work, 234,
Buff, Conrad, 32
Burkhardt, Hans, 111-12,
Burnside, John, 347
Bury, Pol, 419
Byrd, Peter, 371
Cabala, 84, 205-6
Cadmus, Paul, 34-35
Cahill, Daniel, 518-19
Calder, Alexander, 91
University, Fresno, 488-
Camden Art Center ( London ) ,
Canaday, John, 197
Cannon, T.C., 133
Canogar, Raphael, 293
Carpenter, Craig, 347
Castelli, Leo, 188, 189,
Castelli Gallery (New
York), 188, 189
to, 464-71, 483-84;
Europe and, 406-8;
influence on work, 240-
41, 492-93, 528-29;
marriages and, 60-62, 63,
486-87; surrealism and,
522-25. See also Teresa
of Avila, Saint
Cendrars, Blaise, 56
Cezanne, Paul, 437
Chagall, Marc, 338
Chamberlain, Norman S., 9,
27-30, 31-33, 35, 42, 288
Chance, 370, 443, 445;
dice, 370; Fatima, 46-47;
I Ching, 176, 382;
playing cards, 83-84,
249-51, 370, 382, 453,
456, 472, 482, 526, 549;
roller coasters, 47-50,
Tarot, 249. See also
Chaplin, Charlie, 276
Chappell, Walter, 345, 347
Chin, Keith, 53
Chouinard Art Institute, 40
Chuey, Robert, 299
Cobra movement, 419
Cohen, Harry, 191
Comara Gallery (Los
Angeles), 288, 290-92,
Committee for Traditional
Indian Land and Life,
Coplans, John, 187, 189-90
Copley, Doris, 456
Copley, William, 96, 456
Copley Gallery (Beverly
Corcoran Gallery Biennial,
178, 188, 296
Cornells, Lucien, 416, 475-
76, 477, 479, 480
Cornell, Joseph, 99, 199,
Cornell, Robert, 458
Cornwall, Penelope, 537
Corso, Gregory, 313
Cottonwood Verde Valley Art
Crown, Keith, 288
Cubism, 30-31, 33
Cuevas, Jose Luis, 193,
Dada, 100-101, 254-55, 414,
Dali, Salvador, 30, 150,
393, 431, 432
Dave, Camille, 416
Day of the Dead. See Death
Death: cemeteries, 146,
169-74, 225, 330-31; Day
of the Dead, 89, 112,
168, 324; death of
Patricia Wagner, 174-75;
fear of, 174-75, 559-60;
imagery in work, 146,
Deauville Club (Santa
Monica, California), 146,
Debussy, Claude, 102
Decadent art, 413
de Erdely, Francis, 96, 288
Deetjen's (Big Sur,
Dehr, Rich, 81-82
de Kooning, Willem, 192,
Delano, Annita, 32
Delap, Tony, 213
Delvaux, Paul, 413, 416,
Denver Art Museum, 179, 296
Desnos, Robert, 103, 413
de Villiers, Stephan, 393
De Witt, Robert, 220, 311,
Dike, Phil, 117, 537
Dine, Jim, 188, 210
Dixon, Dane, 191, 283, 307
Dodge Luhan, Mabel, 29
Dominguez, Oscar, 432
Dorn, Warren, 437
Downey Museum of Art
(Downey, California), 472
Dreams: archetypal versus
collective, 555, 557,
559-60; influence of,
446-50, 490, 553, 555
Dreamworks ( periodical ) ,
Druck, Renata, 309
Duchamp, Marcel, 30, 206,
254, 415, 416
Dumps, 154, 161-63, 166,
377-78, 391-92; in
Mexico, 330-31; Red
Mountain, 155-57, 164-65
Durke, Steve, 345, 347
Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles),
187, 188, 192, 203, 283,
Dylan, Bob, 255
Echo Park ( Los Angeles ) ,
292, 312, 319, 338, 343,
361, 453, 469, 487
Eddy, Nelson, 181
Edge Gallery (Fullerton,
Edwards, Mel, 304
Elger, Rod, 218-21
El Greco, 254, 298
Eliot, Ramblin' Jack, 312
Elliot, Peter (father-in-
law), 59, 62, 64-65
Elliott, James, 308
Eluard, Gala, 432
Eluard, Paul, 413, 432
Emsco Derrick Equipment
Company, 1, 37-38, 39, 66
Ensors, James, 420, 421
Ernst, Max, 30, 117-18,
416, 431, 433, 434, 456,
Eroticism in art, 424-30
Escher, Maurits, 390, 419
Etts, Bob, 271
Europe, living in:
Amsterdam, 400, 428-29;
Belgium, 398-99, 404,
409-14, 416-24, 428-29,
451-52, 473-81; London,
365-85, 386, 391-93, 398,
418; Stockholm, 362-65,
Evanson, Bj6rn, 363-64
Everts, Chizuko, 280
Everts, Connor, 279, 280
Exodus Gallery (San Pedro,
Eyck, Hubert and Jan van,
Feigen-Palmer Gallery (New
Feitelson, Lorser, 110,
284, 297, 300
Felgar, Janice, 289
Ferus Gallery ( Los
Angeles), 179, 187, 190,
203, 205, 211, 281, 283,
297, 301, 305, 307
Finch, Keith, 202, 297, 299
Fine, Morton, 60
Fischinger, Dakar, 91
Fishman, Paula, 326, 328
Fixel, Justine, 487, 489
Fixel, Lawrence, 489, 516
Florentine Gallery (Pacific
Flores, Joan Milke, 533
Flynn, Errol, 62
Foch, Nina, 286
Foch Raybof f Gallery ( Los
Angeles ) , 286
Frankenstein, Alfred, 197
Frazier, Charles, 150, 415
Freeman, Betty, 188
Freith, George, 16-17
Fremont, Bob, 172
Fremont, Henriette, 172
French, Pamela, 531
Fresh, Tom, 450
Freud, Sigmund, 441-42
Funk art, 100, 198, 414,
(Brussels), 399, 451
(Gent), 399, 400, 409,
Galerij Te Zwarte Panter
( Antwerp ) , 414
Garbage. See Dumps
Garner, Phil, 539
Gechtoff, Sonia, 191
Geldzahler, Henry, 191,
Gentille, Vic, 419
Getty, George F,, 4
Giacometti, Alberto, 424
Ginsberg, Marylyn, 380
Glasgow, Lukman, 472, 536
Glynn, Joseph, 494
Gongora, Leonel, 305
Gordon Wagner Loves You
Gorky, Arshile, 218
Gorman, Carl, 133, 305
Gorman, R.C., 133, 305
Graywood Gallery (Manhattan
Beach, California), 55
Greenwich Village Art
Colony ( Hermosa Beach,
Grunwald, Fred, 188
Guggenheim, Peggy, 104
Guston, Philip, 36, 104
Hale, Alan, 62
Harby, Harold, 437
Harnett, William Michael,
Harris, Latif, 337
Hawn, Goldie, 353
Hay, Harry, 347, 348, 351
Hedrick, Wallace, 278
Henderson, Gil, 191, 282-84
Henderson, Olympia, 283
Hepburn, Audrey, 182
Hermosa Beach and Redondo
Beach, California, 7, 19-
20, 102, 167; amusement
parks in, 8-9, 22-25;
childhood and adolescence
in, 1-4, 8, 12-16, 22,
27-28, 42, 43, 79, 90,
92, 95, 114, 283-84, 286,
545; nostalgia for, 539,
Herms, George, 150, 151,
191, 198, 206-8, 282, 309
Hertel, Carl, 357
Hess, Thomas B. , 197
Heydt, Meg, 447
Hickson, Russell, 140, 287
Hickson Gallery (Manhattan
Beach, California), 140,
Hiler, Hilaire, 56
Hippies, 93, 130, 339-40,
Hirsch, Joseph, 34
Hooch, Pieter de, 433
Hoornaert, Frans, 479, 484
Hopi Indians. See Native
American cultures of the
Hopps, Walter, 179, 187,
191-93, 203, 278, 279,
281, 306-10, 418
Horton, Lester, 90
Hougland, Kisha, 53
Hougland, Willard, 52, 60,
95, 96-97, 119-20
Hougland (Willard) Gallery
California), 95, 96-97
Houston, Bruce, 396
Hufford Machine Works, 79-
Huntington, Henry, 3
Irrationality, 391, 452-53;
and faith, 63, 468-69,
523. See also Chance
Irwin, Robert, 210, 211,
278, 284-85, 298
Israel Galerij (Amsterdam),
Jack the Snake Priest, 132
Jackson, Errol, 377
Jackson, Janice, 376-77
Jarvaise, James, 96, 288
Jean, Marcel, 393
Jenkins, James, 539
Jensen, Frank, 32, 288
Jepson, Herbert, 299
Jerger, Lieve, 537
Jerome, Arizona, 113-17,
119, 120, 122, 123
Johns, Jasper, 252
Joyce, Max White, 393
Jung, Carl, 125, 140, 141,
234-35, 441-42, 464
K'achongva, Dan, 130, 348
Kahanamoku, Duke, 26
Kanol. See Nolde, Karl
Kaplan, Leonard, 286
Kappes, Nick, 529
Kauffman, Craig, 189, 210,
211, 278, 297
Kavanaugh, Kieran, 485
Kelly, Ellsworth, 371
Khnopff, Fernand, 413
Kienholz, Edward, 101, 108,
150, 179, 187, 198, 200-
205, 277, 278, 281, 282,
283, 297, 301, 371, 415
Kienholz, Lynn, 205
Kienholz, Mary, 202-3
Kinder, Marsha, 557-59
Kirk, Honor, 529, 531
Klee, Paul, 35, 119-21
Kline, Franz, 103
Kneifel, Edward, 287
(Uppsala, Sweden), 459
Kosa, Emil, 33
Kosa, Emil, Jr. , 33
Kuniyoshi, Yasuo, 110
Kunkin, Art, 343
Kuntz, Edward, 537
Kuprinn, Walter, 32
Laguna Beach, California,
Laguna Beach Arts
Landau, Felix, 196
Landau (Felix) Gallery (Los
Angeles), 188, 288
Lang, Bernard, 371-73, 375,
Lange, Detta, 348
Lange, Hannes, 348
Lau, Ed, 537
Law, John, 353, 356
Law, Tom, 353
Leary, Timothy, 347
Leavin, Margo, 107
Lebrun, Rico, 104-8, 189,
288, 292, 299, 300
Lee, Dean, 53
Lehman, Jean-Pierre, 375,
393, 398, 429
Lehner, Benson, 275
Lighthouse ( Hermosa Beach,
Lloyd, Kenneth, 376
Loboma, Charles, 133-34
Loboma, Otellie, 133-34
Loeb, Ronald, 425
Logosi, Laszlo, 408
Long Beach Museum of Art,
Lttnn, Eje, 364
Los Angeles, as an arts
community, 9-10, 104,
185-93, 195-96, 202, 276-
83, 288, 297-306, 308,
Los Angeles County Museum
of Art, 303
Los Angeles County Museum
of History, Science, and
Art, 35, 105, 297
Los Angeles Free Press,
Los Angeles Oracle, 356
Los Angeles Times, 151,
195-97, 297, 328, 342,
Love Generator, 345, 346-48
Lyle (John) Press, 394
MacDonald-Wright , Stanton,
Maddox, Conroy, 393
Magic realism, 103
Magritte, Georgette, 432,
Magritte, Rene, 257, 392,
413, 415, 423, 424, 431,
432, 434, 456, 459
Mallarme, Stephane, 417,
Mallory, Robert, 279
Mandalas, 141, 147
Manley, Ray, 118
Manley, Ray, Jr., 118
Manning, Timothy, 494
Manual Arts High School
(Los Angeles), 35
Marioni, Tom, 310
Martin, Eric, 73-74, 76
Martini, Simone, 514
Marsh, Reginald, 35
Mason, Fred, 150
Masteller, Barry, 517
Matta Echaurren, Roberto,
McCarthy, Joseph, 113, 437
McDonald, Kirk, 59
McMillen, Michael C, 290
McReady, George, 181
Memling, Hans, 422, 514
Mergenthaler , Hedy, 172,
317, 318, 319
Mexico: comparison with
Los Angeles, 168-70, 230-
34; influence on work,
88-89, 93-94, 168-70,
217, 221-22, 225-26, 261-
62, 325; living in, 42,
87-89, 174, 178, 230.
See also Death- -Day of
Miller, Dave, 32, 288
Miller, Harriet, 538-39
Miller, Henry, 39-40, 51-
56, 57, 96, 97, 122, 288,
Miller, Lepska, 39, 54
Miller, Roberta M, , 531-35,
Millet, Jean-Frangois, 398,
Millier, Arthur, 151, 196,
Minschew, William E., Jr.,
Mir6, Joan, 414
Mirror imagery, 403-4
Mondrian, Piet, 212, 462
Monongi, David, 129-31,
132, 134, 346-47, 351,
Monza, Luis, 32
Moore, Henry, 377, 378
Morgan, Jeanie, 343
Motherwell, Robert, 103
Murphy, Michael, 204, 299
Murray, May, 315
Museum of Contemporary Art
(MOCA, Los Angeles), 190
Narrative in art, 126, 215-
Native American cultures of
the Southwest, 122, 128-
32, 143-44, 251, 316,
331; Indian artists, 133-
34, 304, 444; Hopis
compared to Navahos, 142-
43; influence on Wagner's
art, 127, 137-38, 139,
142, 320-21, 344, 520;
myth and legends of, 125-
26, 129, 130, 132, 140-
42, 234, 259-61, 464;
politics and, 344-48,
350-52; way of life, 123-
24, 130-32, 134-39, 322-
Navaho nation. See Native
American cultures of the
Nelson, Rolph, 207
Nelson Art Gallery (Kansas
Newman, Barnett, 371
New York City, 182-84
Nieto, Manuel, 337
Niset, Annie, 475
Nolde, Emil, 269
Nolde, Karl, 269-74, 276
Nordness Gallery (New
North American Aviation
Company, 57-58, 62, 70-
Nostalgia in art, 82-84,
163-66, 542-45, 549
Now Gallery (Los Angeles),
179, 187, 281-82
Oldenburg, Claes, 187, 188,
Olgvin, John, 265
Open City, 343
Open Gallery (Eugene,
Oppenheimer, Robert, 79,
Orlando Gallery (Encino,
Outterbridge, John, 304
Pacific Grove Art Center
California) 337, 492
Palace of the Legion of
Honor (San Francisco),
Palos Verdes Community Arts
Partch, Harry, 339
Pasadena Art Museum, 189,
Payne, Robert, 276
Paz, Octavio, 458
Peake, Channing, 299
Peers, Allison, 484
Penderecki, Krzysztof, 257
Pepper, Samuel, 335
Perachitch, Yelka, 153
Peret, Benjamin, 417
Perkins, Constance, 196
Perls, Frank, 90, 91, 96,
Phoenix Art Museum, 140,
Picabia, Francis, 255
Picasso, Pablo, 27, 30, 206
Pittman, Hobson, 110
Pitzer College, 356, 357-58
Plagens, Peter: The
Sunshine Muse, 210, 213-
Plompens, John, 385, 400
Pollock, Jackson, 35-36,
103-4, 192, 218, 252
Portillo, Tony, 527
Powell, Judson, 304
Preston, Don, 166, 339
Price, Vincent, 181
Protest art, 82, 152, 252,
254, 344, 350-51, 434
Prudhoe, Raymond, 375, 385
Prudhoe Gallery (London),
Psychedelic art, 93
Pueblo Indians. See Native
American cultures of the
Purchase prices, 296-97
Purifoy, Noah, 152, 304
Quick, David, 81, 82, 539
Quinn, John R. , 494
Rauschenberg, Robert, 252
Ray, Man, 30, 456
Rayboff, Ernie, 286
Raymond, John, 276
Reagan, Ronald, 67-68
Reddin, Nancy, 205
California. See Hermosa
Beach and Redondo Beach,
Redondo Union High School
Reed, John, 191, 283
Reese, Roland, 305
Reinhardt, Ad, 188, 189,
Remington, Frederick, 126
Richer, Artie, 191, 283,
Richmond Art Center
Rivers, Johnny, 354
Roach, Hal, 182
Robles, Esther, 196
Rocketdyne, 175, 275, 344
Rodriguez, Otilio, 485
Rolling Thunder, 345-46,
Romero, Frank, 304
Roobjee, Pierre, 416
Rosenthal, Bernard, 437-38
Rubens, Peter Paul, 298,
Rumsey, Howard, 92
Ruscha, Edward, 189, 210,
Russell, Charles Marion,
Saint-Phalle, Niki de, 204
Sakalofski, Vitas, 460
Sanders, Vince, 269
San Francisco Bay Area,
453-56, 463, 466-69, 472,
481, 483, 487-89
Satie, Erik, 524
Schiffrin, Arnold, 112,
Schnelling, Emil, 445
Schwitters, Kurt, 100
Scraffiti technique, 41,
Scrijver, Augusts de, 420
Scrijver, Leo de, 420-21
Secunda, Arthur, 150, 189,
213, 308, 310, 361-62,
Seitz, William, 193, 197
Seldis, Henry, 193-94, 195
Semptewa, Otto, 127, 129
Serisawa, Sueo, 110
Shaw, Ben, 32, 288
Sheets, Millard, 537
Shors, Joan, 399
Sibelius, Jean, 41, 102
Silvan Simone Gallery ( Los
Angeles), 104, 107, 133,
140, 150, 180-81, 193-94,
195, 286-87, 289, 290-96,
305, 327, 328, 360, 453
Simone, Stephen, 293-94
Skjttberg, Brigit, 371
Sloan, John, 29, 34
Smith, Hassel, 191, 278
Smoka, Susan, 343
Snyder, Gary, 313-14
Society for the Restoration
of Lost Dreams, 556
(Stockholm), 363, 365,
Spillieart, Leon, 414
Stables Gallery (Taos, New
Staymate, Mary Jane, 469-
Stenquist, Nils, 363
Steven Douglas Company, 275
Stone, Kenneth, 385
Strombotny, James, 177, 537
Surfing, 14, 26, 56
Surrealism, 30, 103, 259,
393-94, 418, 432-33, 472,
522-25; Belgium and, 412-
17, 451, 514; definition
of, 444-46; psychology
and, 434-35, 440, 441-42;
sadism and, 430-31, 433;
surreal expression in
Wagner's work, 423-24,
438, 443-44, 527
Swain, Arthur, 465, 467,
470-71, 472, 483-84, 486-
Symbolist art, 413, 527-29
Syndell Studios ( Los
Angeles), 203, 278, 279,
Talbert, Ben, 150, 198
Workshop ( Los Angeles ) ,
Tamayo, Rufino, 325
Tanguy, Yves, 431, 433, 524
Tanning, Dorothea, 118, 456
Taoism, 63, 208, 240, 331,
463-64, 511; influence on
work, 147, 234, 260-61,
Teresa of Avila, Saint,
465, 467, 478-80, 445-85,
Teresa of Calcutta, Mother,
Thunholm, Jan, 363
Timelessness and art, 251-
57, 351, 434
Toledo Museum of Art, 179
Took, George, 35
Toorop, Jan, 413
Topanga, California, 81-82,
101, 175-76, 178, 201,
218-21, 226, 268-76, 311-
"Toying Around", 538-40
Thomas, Norman, 67
Trompe-1 'oeil, 390, 401,
Tront, Nellie, 279
Tuchman, Maurice, 187
Tyberg, Edith, 353
Tzara, Tristan, 417
Ufer, Walter, 29
Umbracht-Brandt , Lilie, 118
University of California,
Berkeley, 40, 59
University of California,
Los Angeles, 37, 38, 40,
52, 70, 152, 189
van Beverloo, Cornells, 419
van der Veecken, Raoul,
van Hoogstraten, Samuel,
van Odenheim, Regine van
Outryve d'ljdewalle, 475-
van Raemdonck, Adrian, 414
van Young, Oscar, 110, 111
Verhe, Arnold, 416
Vietnam War, 344
Vigario, Gordon, 493
Vigario, Sharon, 493
Vinche, Lionel, 416
Vlaminck, Maurice de, 30
Von's Cafe Galleria
Coffeehouse ( Los
Angeles), 202, 277-78
Vorpal Gallery (New York
and San Francisco), 335,
Voulkos, Peter, 191
Wagman, Arnold, 201, 277
Wagner, Anna Austin
(grandmother), 1, 2, 11-
Wagner, Genevieve (mother),
Wagner, Jay Spoor (father),
1, 6-8, 11, 37, 38
Wagner, Murrel (brother), 2
Wagner, Patricia Elliot
(first wife), 54, 58-64,
68-69, 114, 115, 123,
174-75, 176, 311, 315,
Wagner, Virginia Copeland
(second wife), 128, 129,
132, 134, 184, 223, 250,
290, 292, 316-19, 330,
336, 353, 356, 360, 366,
376, 377, 398, 405, 428,
441, 446, 449, 451, 463-
70, 474, 475, 477, 483-
84, 486-87, 512, 513,
Walsch, Marty, 539
Warhol, Andy, 187
Warshaw, Howard, 297, 299
Waters, Frank: The Masked
Gods, 114, 122, 124
Watts riot, 152
Wayne, June, 189-90
Weatherhill, Ben and John,
Wendt, Walter, 32
Westerman, H.C., 104
Wheelwright, Mary C. , 125
Whitney Museum of American
Art (New York), 178
Williams, Lisa, 343
Wilson, Bud, 85
Wilson, Johnny, 44
Wilson, William, 196, 197,
342, 427, 442, 453
Wood, Harry, 79
Wood, Natalie, 181
Woolf, Virginia, 366
Administration ( WPA ) , 27,
World War II, 56-58, 66-67
Wright, Dion, 345, 347
Wyeth, Andrew, 256
Wylie, Edith, 85
Wylie, Frank, 85
Xenakis, Iannis, 256
Yoga, 354-56, 511
Young, Taddeo, 337
Zamora, Frank, 124
Zappa, Frank, 166
Zen Buddhism. See Buddhism
INDEX OF GORDON WAGNER WORKS
Between Heaven and Hell 146, 158-59,
Bright Young Men, The 82
Cabrillo Beach Memories 245, 263
Cruciform and Skyrocket 253, 264
Death Hand 261-62
Death's Diameter 215
Fetish (box assemblage, 1970) 227, 228, 331-32
Fetish (Whiskey Marine series, 1985) 239
Five Sentinels, The 153
From the Sea 145, 148, 215
Gameless Game, The 157
Hook and Eye 242
House of Willem 263
HTG 26 147, 158, 161,
Icon to a Queen 251
Icon to Great Railroads 243-44, 321
Joker, The 251
La Reyna 262, 264
Letter Edged in Black, The 261, 264
Metamorphosis (Whiskey Marine series, 1986) 260
Mexican Bus (box assemblage) 362, 381
Mexico (box assemblage)
Monument to the Penny Arcade
Piece of Pieces from the Sea ( series )
Seven Actors, The
Shot at Twenty Fathoms
Sir Deauvllle 146-47, 148-49,
158, 161, 162,
Soup Bone Fetish 261, 265
Two Loves 166-67, 229
Undersea Log, The 242
Untitled assemblage created for 152, 304
Sixty-six Signs in Neon show
Whiskey Marine series 209-10, 215,
251, 253, 259-
America Needs Indians or I Think We 350
Ought to Stop This Sort of Thing.
Black Sun 394
Bowler, The 402
Bracero, The 326
Circus in a Keyhole
Day of the Dead
Devil Exorcisor, The
Devil Set The Church on Fire, The
Draw up a Chair
Fetish (box assemblage, 1970)
Five Keyholes, The
Gemini Lady, The
Hap ' s Bath House
Hilltown Fire Brigade
Mexican Bus ( box assemblage )
Mexico (box assemblage)
Nino de Prague
Octaves ' s Piano Brokerage
Phantom , The
Phantom Ship, The
Prairie Schooner, The
Room, The (1985)
Russian Hill Incident
Shadow of a Doubt, The
staircase. The 462
"Suite of Keyholes" (thirteen boxes) 482-83, 485,
Theatre of the Upside Dovm 392-93
Three Faces of a Child 381-82
Town Ship 3^^
Trains in the Comer of My Eye, The 447
Zodiac Box 334
Ballet Mobile 90-91
Castle of the Graf van Ronnnelgem, The 334
( construction )
"Dance Piece with Burned Wood" 338-39
Firaskew (construction) 333, 387, 389,
390, 395, 404,
443, 513, 526,
Interior Castle, The (also known as 387,478-81,
The Castle of the Seven Dwelling 484, 487, 489-
Places; construction) 521, 525-26,
Light Machines 91-93
Living in Infinity 334-37, 454
Loof Lirpa 337-38
Maze of Invisible Walls, The 338
Suit of Pluses, The (construction) 525
Ahora (painting) 214, 217
Barrington series (paintings) 85-86
Big Sur series (paintings) 101-2
Death of Angel's Flight (painting) 214, 216
Devil's Workshop (painting, 1960) 214, 216-17
Double S (collage) 159-60
Funeraria (painting) 214, 215, 230,
Memories of the Future 49-50, 386,
(lithograph series) 426-27, 448
Mexican drawings 49-50, 221-22,
Mexican Interior ( painting ) 93
Metamorphoses (painting, 1966) 214, 215
Navaho series (paintings) 125-27, 136-42,
180, 182, 285-
Nebraska Speedway series (paintings) 182-217
Nebraska Speedway Windmill (painting) 214, 218-21
Romantic Figure (collage) 159, 160-61
Scraffiti paintings 41, 85, 121
Squaw Fight ( painting ) 230
"Suit of Squares" (thirteen paintings) 472, 482
"Suit of Circles" (thirteen paintings) 456, 482
To an Unknown Angel (painting) 214
Under the Crown series (drawings) 367, 370
Yeibichai, The (painting, also known 136, 259, 286
as The Navajo Night Chant)